Landowners could be barred from buying country estates or forced to sell off land if they are accused of neglect or abuse of power under proposals being studied by Scottish ministers.
The Scottish Land Commission (SLC), an influential advisory body, has recommended that all large or important land sales in Scotland should be subject to a legally enforceable public interest test to make sure the sale has wider social or environmental benefits.
The SLC has told ministers the concentration of land ownership in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and uplands, is equivalent to the monopolies seen in business, where small groups of people wield excessive economic power. That could include lairds preventing new houses being built; landowners controlling key assets such as filling stations or boat slipways, or important cultural assets like local hotels and shops; or landowners who employ a majority of local people, stifling different activities.
In a detailed report to the Scottish government, the commission has told ministers any future sales involving estates over 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres), as well as any of economic or ecological significance, such as entire islands, should be included.
Hamish Trench, commission chief executive, said: “History has given us a pattern of land ownership in which localised ‘monopoly’ power can and does exist. This creates risks that run counter to the needs of a modern, dynamic economy.”
In a major study in 2019, the commission found that 70% of Scotland’s rural land, covering more than 4.1m ha was owned by 1,125 people or public bodies. Of those, 87 of the most powerful owners had holdings totalling 1.7m ha, including major agencies and charities such as Forestry and Land Scotland, a government body that inherited the Forestry Commission’s estates, and the National Trust for Scotland, as well as powerful hereditary owners such as the Duke of Buccleuch. In 2019, the Church of England’s investment fund became the largest private owner of Scottish commercial forestry.
Wealthy Scandinavians have also emerged as significant forces in the Highlands, with Anders Povlsen, the billionaire owner of the Bestseller clothing group, now Scotland’s largest private landlord. He owns more than 89,000 ha in the north and the Cairngorms. Lisbet and Sigrid Rausing, multimillionaire sisters from the Rausing family, which established the Tetrapak global packaging company, own large estates near Inverness and Fort William.