Can Scotland’s land policy cope with the pressure of shifting market forces?

Land is long term; policymaking needs to be careful and thoughtful. But sometimes the world changes quickly, meaning that legislation is playing catch-up. Recent months have seen several heavyweight reports delivered on how Scotland might plan for the next couple of decades and beyond - but while consultation grinds on, events are moving rapidly. Competing demands for land are driving sharply rising prices for farmland and estates. It is not just higher food and timber prices; the pandemic and carbon offset schemes have stimulated new interest in even low quality farmland. Can our land policy cope with the pressures of market forces?

Scotland 2045, the fourth National Planning Framework, is being finalised. This is the target date for net zero emissions, but the strategy goes beyond this – aiming to deliver radical change for future generations. This will span climate change, biodiversity and wellbeing. At the same time, the Scottish Land Commission report and John Muir Trust have pitched in. All of this comes as post-pandemic recovery, the impact of Ukraine and disruption to supply chains is barely understood. As a result, aspects of these reports seem geared to the world as it was, not 2022. Inflation is particularly acute in timber, diesel and fertiliser. Climate no longer looks like the only emergency.

Recent years have seen big rises in the value of Scotland’s agricultural land and estates. Over the past five years, of the UK farms that have changed hands, investors and corporate buyers have bought more than 40%. Agricultural land quality is no longer the key determinant of farmland value, as new interest focuses on carbon offset markets, forestry grants, lifestyle and rewilding. The change is most marked in poor livestock land, which has suddenly discovered new use. However there is a warning from signs in Wales that institutional buyers looking for carbon offset in forestry are competing for good agricultural land. This could quickly come to Scotland. Investment institutions specialising in this have unearthed widespread demand for the returns that can be generated from this type of “green” investment.

Changing buyer patterns have been driven by the pandemic and new ways of working, as quality of life consideration drives a re-evaluation of rural lifestyles. Demand has also been encouraged by low interest rates, strong long term investment performance of farmland and favourable capital taxation. There is also a healthy increased interest in restoring eco-systems and improving amenity. But realistically it may not be possible to return fully to the type of sustainable circular economies that many of Scotland’s places once represented.

Many of these natural capital opportunities are positive – provided good quality farmland does not move into carbon offset and undermine Scotland’s food production. Although wild places have a capacity to capture carbon on an immense scale, the timescale for regenerating peatlands is long. By comparison, timber that might easily re-enter the carbon cycle within a couple of decades has easy short term financial measures; appealing but perhaps illusory. Natural capital – Scotland’s land assets - seems to be being priced inconsistently, with too much credit given for relatively transient offsetting projects.

And there is the danger that offsetting merely perpetuates some bad carbon-emitting activities. While people understand what is meant by zero carbon emissions, the concept of “net zero” is more abstract and less trusted. Using this to drive changing land use through market forces and price competition, may undermine the sort of sustainability that the Land Commission report and John Muir Trust have in mind.

Despite the need globally to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, there are downsides to ill-considered green energy. Carbon reduction could be at the expense of bio-diversity, if there is not some minimum target for native species in new woodland schemes. And there is the danger that the offset approach, to create a net-zero economy, simply allows polluting activities to continue with business as usual. It may be an ineffective way to manage a just transition in greenhouse gases, which won’t stop oil extraction or reduce flying. Even applying a carbon emissions land tax as a lever to transform land use might simply export some of the carbon production to other parts of the world. A small nation can lead by example but should be cautious in imagining what the real global impact of its policies might be.

The competition between quality food production and new demands on the land shows up in market prices and changing ownership. Some of this new use and ownership may be in-line with long term sustainability and public interest, but it does challenge policy and planning. In 2014, the Scottish government announced a target of 1 million acres in community ownership by 2020, yet achieved only half of this, mainly due to rising land prices. This is triggering calls to bring some restriction to the free market in land prices. And there may be a case for introducing a public interest test for very large transfers of land. How rapidly these might have an effect is questionable, affecting only land changing hands – embedding responsible land ownership across the nation may be a surer route. Certainly, more attention must now be given to a wider group of stakeholders in how land is used.

Warning has been sounded in a report on the Northern Ireland Agri-Food sector which notes that the price for its growth has been an emphasis on livestock. The result is a rise in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from its agriculture, up almost 9% over the last decade, primarily from cattle. Agriculture now accounts for more than one-quarter of Northern Ireland’s GHG emissions.

The Ukraine war has exacerbated a global food crisis, forcing compromises in addressing the climate emergency to ensure food security. And it should no longer be considered acceptable to compromise peatland by installing windfarms on such a fragile asset. Alternative energy is certainly needed, but it must be implemented in a sensitive way that does not create new environmental damage. Scotland certainly has scope for more tree planting; its forestry and woodland proportion is less than half of the European average. The challenge is what types of trees, and where.  With care, there is potential for Scotland to move to more sustainable and productive land management. Policy can now be developed from a set of major reports, but must first be updated to recognise the new reality of price rises in food, land and carbon offset.

A version of this article was published in The Herald on 21.6.2022.

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