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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 7, 2023


Rural Estates (Wellbeing Economy)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-07793, in the name of Finlay Carson, on welcoming the contribution of rural estates to Scotland’s wellbeing economy. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the report, The Contribution of Rural Estates to Scotland’s Wellbeing Economy, by Scottish Land and Estates; believes that this report, for which the research was carried out by BiGGAR Economics Ltd and Scottish Land and Estates, is an innovative example of a whole sector measuring its outputs against Scotland’s National Performance Framework’s National Outcomes rather than just through traditional economic metrics; considers that the report describes and quantifies how rural estates drive local economic development through agriculture, forestry, tourism, sporting, recreation and renewable energy generation, act as stewards of the natural environment, protect and enhance biodiversity, support the transition to net zero, provide homes and create sustainable new communities, provide a gateway to nature, and function as anchors of communities and support community-led projects; further considers that the report also identifies areas in which there is scope for estates to increase their contributions across the National Outcomes, and provides an improvement framework to complement the research; recognises Scotland’s rural estates as, it considers, key delivery partners of the Scottish Government across a wide range of policy areas, including improving outcomes for people, jobs, and nature across the country, including in the Galloway and West Dumfries constituency, and commends the sector for what it sees as its commitment to this innovative work.


Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

It gives me great pleasure to bring this members’ business debate to the chamber, and I thank those members who supported the motion. I know that they, like me, believe that it is of vital importance that the contribution that Scotland’s rural estates make to our wellbeing economy is recognised and applauded. I also thank Simon Ritchie for his briefings, given that this is his last week with Scottish Land & Estates, and I wish him well in his new role with the Woodland Trust.

I was very fond of the “Monarch of the Glen” television drama, in which the laird wanders around on his magnificent estate, sporting obligatory tweed plus-fours and stopping occasionally to sip a little bit of malt whisky from the hip flask as he takes in the fine scenery. That was perhaps good for viewers, but today, in most cases, it could not be further from the truth.

To go back to reality, in February this year, Scottish Land & Estates published what can only be described as a landmark report on “The Contribution of Rural Estates to Scotland’s Wellbeing Economy”, which highlights the social, economic and environmental contributions that are made by rural estates and communities the length and breadth of Scotland, including in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries.

As a groundbreaking piece of research conducted in partnership with BiGGAR Economics Ltd, Scottish Land & Estates has produced a unique report that outlines the contribution of estates far beyond traditional financial economic outputs. The report gives a picture of how rural estates measure their outputs against Scotland’s national performance frameworks and the associated national outcomes, rather than simply using traditional economic metrics. In effect, it quantifies how our rural estates drive local economic development through agriculture, forestry, tourism, sport and recreation and renewable energy generation.

Would Finlay Carson add to that list the fact that, so often, rural estates support local education facilities and schools, which employ teachers, local grocery stores, which employ people, and so on?

Finlay Carson

Absolutely. I agree, and I thank Kate Forbes for her well-made intervention. We have seen the educational programmes that some estates have rolled out. It is one of the first sectors to undertake such research, and it is certainly the first time that the wider contribution of land-based businesses has been assessed in this way.

The aim of the report is to establish a baseline of the rural estate sector’s contributions to Scotland’s national outcomes. As we know, the Scottish Government has set 11 outcomes to measure progress towards a wellbeing economy. The Government has made it clear that its priority is to establish a wellbeing economy, defined as

“a society that is thriving across economic, social and environmental dimensions, and that delivers prosperity for all Scotland’s people and places.”

The research, by leading economic consultancy BiGGAR Economics, revealed that rural estates contribute to at least seven of the 11 national outcomes. They provide homes for 13,000 families and land for 14,000 enterprises, in addition to attracting 5.4 million Scottish residents each year to enjoy the natural environment.

In regards to the environment, rural estates account for 58 per cent of Scotland’s renewable energy generating capacity. The contribution that rural estates make to Scotland’s natural capital asset base arises from estates’ agricultural, forestry and renewable energy operations and the contribution that they make to Scotland’s carbon sequestration potential and nature-based tourism economy. The total value of the assets underpinning that contribution is estimated to be a staggering £35.1 billion.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Could I add field sports to the list of the substantial, major and excellent contributions of rural estates? Field sports make an invaluable contribution to the rural economy, support a huge number of employees and provide great entertainment to people who travel to Scotland for the best field sport opportunities that the world has to offer.

Finlay Carson

Absolutely. I am feeling a bit inadequate, with members adding these other fantastic value-added elements that estates provide. As my committee takes through the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill, we have been appreciating the value of sporting activities on estates.

Four out of five estates are engaged in conservation through sustainable agriculture and land management, and they also get involved in habitat restoration and wildlife conversation—sorry, conservation. These are quite staggering statistics. My goodness, I am lining up the words that I can trip myself up on.

Crucially, estates generate an estimated £2.4 billion a year for the Scottish economy and support around 57,300 jobs—around one in 10 rural jobs—providing employment in areas where opportunities can be scarce. They provide high-quality jobs, paying on average 95 per cent of their staff at least a living wage, and 86 per cent of the positions are contractually secure.

Estates have adopted a buy-local policy that makes rural economies more resilient, and improves the wellbeing of those who rely on them. On average, estates purchase almost three quarters of supplies from their local area. In turn, they support a healthy stream of business start-ups, which is a hugely important component of a thriving economy, especially when it involves young enterprises.

There is clear evidence from the research that estates are agents for social, economic and environmental development, providing the kind of private investment that will allow the Scottish Government to deliver on its priorities. In the words of Shona Glenn of BiGGAR Economics:

“The findings show that the contribution goes well beyond economic output and supporting jobs. Scotland’s estates are doing much to drive the creation of a wellbeing economy.”

Scottish Land & Estates rightly insists that it is critical that those who are involved in Scotland’s land reform debate should recognise the value of estates to modern-day Scotland rather than becoming mired in historical arguments.

I agree with the former SLE chairman Mark Tennant that the role of estates in supporting green jobs, local businesses and economies, supporting mental and physical wellbeing and stewarding Scotland’s natural capital should be recognised more widely. He said:

“Many of the estates involved in the research are able to achieve what they do—such as peatland restoration, clean energy or innovative food production—because they operate at a large scale ... Scale is important for delivery of ambitious Scottish Government targets and priorities regardless of who owns the land ... We want to see any land reform debate based on the realities of modern day ownership and management. Rural estates are vibrant and progressive in their approach and see themselves as key to Scotland’s sustainable future.”

I will briefly highlight the excellent work being carried out at Barwhillanty estate in Castle Douglas, a diverse estate that offers sustainable food production and tourism stays and experiences. As well as producing garden vegetables, meat and wood fuel for the local community, the estate has moved successfully into agritourism by offering off-grid yoga and wellbeing retreats, weddings and lifestyle courses. The estate has created affordable housing, making a consistent investment to improve the quality of homes—a subject that we debated just last week. Many other estates are following suit, playing an important role in building resilient rural communities.

Finally, I come to my concerns. Rural estates have a significant positive impact. So, whether we are considering our climate change plans, the Scottish Government’s plans for the natural environment or its crofting legislation, the new Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill, the proposed land reform bill, the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023 or the current Wildlife Management and Muirburn Burn (Scotland) Bill, we must not be naive or ill informed and must not allow historic and outdated prejudice to lead to bad legislation that would curtail the ability of rural estates to build on their substantial contribution to Scotland’s wellbeing economy.

Those estates deserve our recognition and I am thankful for the opportunity to applaud them for all that they do for our rural communities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. I gently remind those who have not yet pressed their request-to-speak button to do so as soon as possible if they intend to speak. I call Fergus Ewing to speak for around four minutes.


Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

I congratulate Finlay Carson on bringing the debate and begin by taking the first opportunity that I have had to pay tribute to the late Philippa Grant, who sadly passed away in a tragic incident on the A9 more than a year ago. Philippa was much loved in her own community and she achieved huge things in the Highlands. She exuded good cheer and lived a very full life. She attended every committee meeting dealing with our national parks legislation 24 years ago, which was when I got to know her. We will miss her, as will her family.

I also had the great privilege of slightly knowing the late Donald Cameron—clan chief of Lochiel and father of our Donald Cameron—who passed away more recently. Donald senior was the Lord Lieutenant of Inverness and overcame serious illness to achieve great things in the City of London and in his community of Lochaber, where he was loved and respected for his huge commitment to that community. His father and grandfather were Lords Lieutenant before him, keeping the county of Inverness-shire in the family. Donald will be hugely missed and I am sure that Donald junior is with us in spirit here this evening, if not in person.

I had hoped for rather longer than four minutes, Presiding Officer, and seek your patience.

To sum up what I want to say, there is a big danger of the Scottish Government missing a series of opportunities. I do not say that in any negative sense, but my experience of working with estates shows that they make an enormous contribution to my part of Scotland, some more than others.

Most estates are really businesses first. It does not matter whose name is on the land certificate or the title deeds; what matters is the use to which the land is put. In that respect, it seems to me that the arguments of the past and the quarrels of centuries-ago history should always be remembered and celebrated or drowned with your sorrows, whatever your view is, but they should not govern our approach now, which should be to get the best for Scotland from its landed estates.

There are two opportunities, one in housing and one in energy. Regarding housing, I have made this part of my speech on at least two previous occasions in this chamber. Working in partnership with the estates, which already happens to some extent, could happen much more. There is unrealised potential, on a massive scale, for estates to contribute to dealing with the housing shortage in rural Scotland, if planning permission can be relaxed and provided that there is some element of support, whether grant or loan funds. I suggest that the Scottish National Investment Bank could help there.

I also suggest that the minister should dust off two plans that the Labour-Liberal regime proposed in the early days of devolution: the agricultural business development programme and the agricultural business improvement scheme, both of which stimulated rural investment with a bit of grant finance. The enterprise companies ran those.

Housing is a big opportunity, and permitted development would really open up the overly restrictive approach that there is to planning in rural Scotland, which is treated as being in a sort of aspic, compared with urban Scotland, in a way that reflects outmoded attitudes.

The second opportunity is in energy, where there are enormous opportunities to build on what we were able to achieve during my tenure as energy minister, namely by encouraging not just community benefit at £5,000 per megawatt, but community ownership. If a developer has 20 turbines, add another two and get the SNIB to pay 10 per cent of the capital costs. The developer will not be getting them for free; it will be paying for them. Ten per cent of the capital costs will be paid by SNIB and 90 per cent will be levered in from commercial lenders. That happened when I was minister, albeit not from the major banks, which fell short, I am afraid, but from Triodos Bank, the Co-operative Bank and Close Brothers.

That went well until renewables obligation certificates were scrapped, and I think that it could make a comeback now. The developers have nothing to lose and a lot to gain, because if they have a stake in ownership, communities are far more likely to support wind farm developments than to object. In addition—and this is the main point—that would create a financial legacy for our children and our children’s children.

Presiding Officer, I do not know whether I have more time, but I can certainly fill it. That would not be a problem.

You do not really have more time. You must bring your remarks to a conclusion.

Fergus Ewing

I will not test your patience.

I say thank you very much indeed to Mr Carson. It is excellent that we have had this opportunity, thanks to him. I very much hope that we will grab golden opportunities to work better, deeper and more frequently with landowners of all sorts in Scotland—farmers and estates. There is a golden opportunity here and, sadly, the window of opportunity can rapidly slam shut on your fingers if you do not take the opportunity when it is available.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Ewing. Those were two fine eulogies, which I whole-heartedly welcome. Such speeches always enhance the chances of increased flexibility in terms of speaking time, but there are limits. I call Brian Whittle.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will try not to test those limits too much. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and congratulate my colleague Finlay Carson on bringing this important topic to the chamber.

Scotland has a significant rural population that I am sure we all want to support and help to thrive. After all, our rural economy is Scotland’s kitchen, and I have spoken on many occasions about the world-class produce that it supplies.

What does a wellbeing economy mean for our rural communities? Our rural communities need what everybody else needs: a safe place to live, work and play, with good access to schools and health services such as GPs, dentists and hospitals. They need to be able to travel, especially on public transport and, of course, they need good road and rail networks for that transport. They need links to good jobs and careers that will keep them in those rural communities.

However, it seems to me that, at every turn, the Scottish Government is undermining our rural communities. It undervalues their huge positive impact on our economy, let alone the wellbeing economy that our rural estates create. As Finlay Carson said, one in 10 rural jobs—57,000 jobs—are in those estates, adding £2.4 billion to our gross value added. What is even more impressive is that the average length of service from staff sits at 15 years.

The Government wants to attack those estates and break them up with the land reform bill that is in the offing. We also have a constant attack on our food producers from the Green brigade, blaming farmers for global warming, when our food producers are delivering real change in emissions through their own efforts, with no help and much griping from the Scottish National Party-Green alliance. Keep talking our rural economy down and you will wake up one day and it will be gone. Then where will our food security come from? We will have to import produce that has not been subject to the same scrutiny that our food producers adhere to. How very green.

We heard last week that the cull for cow and bull slaughter is up 11 per cent, which raises concerns for critical mass and the viability of our livestock economy.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

It is interesting that Mr Whittle makes a blanket statement about the SNP and the Greens talking down the rural sector, but never once in this chamber have I talked down our rural economy. I would like you to acknowledge that.

Speak through the chair, please.

I thank Emma Harper for that intervention. It would be really useful if all your colleagues would follow your example.

Speak through the chair, please.

Brian Whittle

My apologies.

Scotland’s red meat sector supports more than 39,000 jobs in Scotland and generates roughly £839 million in GVA. People on the ground are worried for the future of the livestock industry. A combination of an ageing population, low business margins and market uncertainty created by Government policy is putting new entrants off. Farming is seen as a lifestyle, not necessarily as a business, but people still need to be able to make ends meet. There is a minimum threshold of livestock that farms must have to make livestock farming profitable. There is real concern on the ground that a lack of replacement in breeding cattle could spell the collapse of the livestock market and associated economies very soon, and there is a disconnect between those on the ground and those making policy. That is you, Scottish Government.

Profitable farms spend money on rural and local economies. Profitable farms underpin the rural economy. Profitable farms have the money to invest in environmental schemes. The framework Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill is causing uncertainty in the market, and people on the ground need to know what will be in the secondary legislation so that they can plan for future markets in time. Adding in the inadequate investment in transport, including roads, rail and bus routes, electric car charging points, hydrogen transport and facilities for heavy goods vehicles, all leads to an inability to attract business and jobs, the end result of which is the migration of people from rural to urban areas.

When the Scottish Government comes up with a policy of independence being required to deliver an inward migration that could solve rural and island depopulation, it fails to grasp that its policies have systematically attacked and devalued our rural communities and have caused that depopulation over the past 16 years. Much as I welcome Màiri McAllan’s announcement about the U-turn on highly protected marine areas, one cannot help but recognise the huge amount of Government and industry time that was wasted in coming to an inevitable conclusion. All that the Scottish Government achieved there was to disquiet a whole industry.

Too many rural policies are created by urban-based, green-ideology-driven politicians, who care nothing about pragmatism and realism. The SNP has allowed that to happen. For the sake of our rural communities, our rural estates and our food producers, the Scottish Government must ditch the ideologically-driven policies, get a dose of practicality and pragmatism, ditch the Greens and start creating a policy that supports our rural economy before there is nothing left.


Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Finlay Carson for the opportunity to debate the contribution of our estates to our economy.

How we use our land matters. It matters to those who live on the land, those whose livelihoods depend on working that land and those who enjoy its rich diversity. We have a duty to ensure that the custodians of that land manage it in a way that contributes to our country’s wellbeing. Given that more than 4.1 million hectares of land—more than half of rural Scotland—is owned by Scotland’s more than 1,000 rural estates, it is clear that those estates are key players in delivering on that duty.

The Scottish Land & Estates report “The Contribution of Rural Estates to Scotland’s Wellbeing Economy” is a useful and timely contribution to the debate about the role of estates in delivering for jobs, nature and leisure and about how they will ultimately contribute to delivering a low-carbon future. The very fact that the research has been carried out is an important step forward.

The BiGGAR Economics research shows that estates provide homes for 13,000 families and land for 14,000 rural enterprises. They bring 5.4 million day visits by people who enjoy the natural environment. They account for more than half of Scotland’s renewable energy-generating capacity and provide vital carbon sequestration. They generate £2.4 billion of GVA per year for the Scottish economy and support about 57,300 rural jobs.

In my South Scotland region are positive examples of estates that provide diverse contributions, from the biodiversity improvements from new hedgerows, ponds and native woodland regeneration at the Roxburghe estate in the Scottish Borders to the positive tourism offer mentioned by Finlay Carson—everything from yoga to wellbeing retreats—at the Barwhillanty estate near Castle Douglas and the sustainable farming and food production that provides quality lamb and award-winning wool at the Castlemilk and Corrie estates near Lockerbie. The latter have strong ties with the local community through the Lockerbie Wildlife Trust, which manages the fantastic Eskrigg nature reserve. All three estates that I mentioned are important providers of affordable housing and vital jobs to their local rural communities.

However, the report for Scottish Land & Estates is right to highlight that there is more to be done. The fight against the nature and climate crises, the depopulation of our rural communities, the barriers to affordable housing and the scourge of low pay in rural communities always require us to re-evaluate how we manage our land.

Those of us who represent rural communities will have represented constituents who are tenants of homes or farms on estates, or who are neighbours to estates, and have found themselves in dispute because of how land was being managed. In some cases, it has taken changes of estate ownership to inject a new lease of life into land through a new approach, such as happened at the Tarras valley nature reserve in the Eskdale valley, where the community raised an astonishing £6 million to fund a community buyout of 10,000 acres of Langholm moor from Buccleuch Estates.

Does Colin Smyth agree that his colleague Mercedes Villalba’s plan to limit the amount of land that can be owned to 500 hectares is completely and utterly unworkable?

Colin Smyth

That is not what the proposed bill says. It sets out a public interest test for sales of land over a certain amount. Any landowner should not be frightened of a public interest test for the use of their land. It is important that land is used in the most productive way that also meets communities’ interests.

I was highlighting the community’s action to tackle such issues at Tarras valley, near Eskdale, which is visionary and impressive. It has driven the way forward on peatland restoration and, with the Woodland Trust’s support, it is expanding native woodland and restoring ancient woodland. The educational opportunities that are now being provided on the moor, which were not there before, are part of the inspiring vision and plans for the community.

However, other changes in ownership are a growing threat, such as the rise of so-called green lairds. That is why a public interest test is vital. Because Scotland’s land market is largely unregulated, that allows companies to buy huge swathes of land so that they can claim green credentials by offsetting their carbon, with little contribution being made to the wellbeing economy.

It is therefore vital that, as the Parliament turns its attention to important legislation on land reform, we seek to ensure that the ownership of land and how we use it are determined productively and are ultimately in the public interest. There is no doubt that, after that legislation is passed, Scotland’s rural estates will still be important players in delivering the work that will be needed to achieve a wellbeing economy.

I end by thanking the estate workers, who deliver many of the outcomes that are in this important report. It is their skills and their graft that maintain the land, manage the environment and create the wealth that benefits so many people in our community. I thank estate workers past and present for the contribution that they have made to those achievements.


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate Finlay Carson on bringing this important debate to the chamber and on his speech. The debate is important because our estates are some of the least understood places in Scotland, especially by the urban-centric signatories to the Bute house agreement.

When we visit an estate, as I had the privilege of doing recently at Glenogil in Angus, we experience elements that are the very definition of wellbeing—fresh air, abundant wildlife and the kind of scenery that reminds us all that Scotland really is the most beautiful country on earth. However, when the SNP-Green Government refers to Scotland’s estates, it is as easy to imagine it referring to some kind of pre-Victorian pantomime involving wicked landowners and rich visitors, which is unrecognisable to anyone who lives on or visits a modern Scottish estate.

Of course, it is not simply a matter of who owns the land—previous speakers have made that point well. The SNP-Green Scottish Government’s deplorable ignorance about rural matters is legendary. It has failed to deliver an agriculture bill that contains anything of substance—it is simply a shell. The Government holds Scotland back with its ignorant and anti-science ban on gene editing, and it has failed rural Scotland by failing to roll out superfast broadband.

Beyond the SNP-Green Scottish Government’s general neglect of rural Scotland, estates, landowners and wildlife managers are under siege by a Government that is intent on their destruction through its intrusive and ill-informed regulation of wildlife management—the very management by highly skilled land managers and gamekeepers, often with decades of experience, that keeps estates going and brings in millions of pounds to local economies, along with all the social infrastructure that Kate Forbes mentioned.

Does Stephen Kerr disagree with licensing? Most sporting estates across Europe have a licensing regime. Is that what he objects to?

Stephen Kerr

I object to unnecessary licensing. I object to unnecessary Government interference. I object to people who know nothing about rural Scotland trying to interfere with how rural Scotland is managed.

Grouse shooting generates more than £23 million for the rural economy and supports more than 1,000 full-time-equivalent rural jobs in Scotland—and far more besides, because those jobs allow young families to stay in rural areas and allow other local tourism-related businesses to emerge. That is achieved without mainstream agri-environment scheme subsidies or significant financial support from the Government.

Wellbeing on shooting estates extends to the many species of birds that live there. There are professionally managed havens for many moorland ground-nesting birds, such as the curlew and the golden plover. When predator control was carried out, lapwing, curlew and golden plover were found to fledge more than three times as many young in comparison with when it was not carried out. Those are the same skilled practices that the SNP-Green Government seeks to suffocate, with clueless virtue signalling and pandering to urban elites.

I have spoken mostly of fauna, but I will conclude by referring to how sporting estates promote the wellbeing of flora—specifically heather, which is the most potent symbol of Scotland. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, moors that stopped grouse shooting lost 41 per cent of their heather cover, while moors that retained shooting lost only 24 per cent.

That path, that bothy and that cottage are not in good condition by chance. They have been cherished and nurtured across centuries by generations of custodians who have cared for, improved and embellished those naturally lovely places to make them the national treasures that they are today. For the SNP to seek to thwart those on rural estates who do so much to keep the Scottish countryside beautiful and functional for visitors, and economically and socially viable for local communities, shows how little it knows about the vast swathes of our country that it claims to speak for.


Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I thank Scottish Land & Estates for the helpful briefing for the debate and for the work that it does to support Scotland’s estates, which play a crucial role in Scottish society and the wellbeing of our nation. I congratulate Finlay Carson on securing the debate—it is really important that we are here to discuss the issue. I give a peedie mention to the fact that I am co-convener of the cross-party group on wellbeing economy, as well as co-convener of the cross-party group on rural policy with my colleague Edward Mountain.

Given that Scotland’s 1,125 rural estates cover a combined 4.1 million hectares—around 57 per cent of Scotland’s rural land—those who are familiar with the sector are well aware of its contribution to the Scottish economy and society. It is important that we highlight that as good news. However, outwith the sector, the contribution is not well recognised or widely understood. I want to touch on some of my engagement with estates across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders on the important role that they play in supporting our rural communities, rural economies and in promoting and protecting biodiversity and wellbeing.

Rural estates generate an estimated £2.4 billion each year and support thousands of jobs, as has been mentioned by members. That makes a significant contribution to Scotland’s economic growth—an important indicator of economic progress—but it is an even more important contribution to Scotland’s rural communities. I welcome the fact that many of Scotland’s rural estates—around 64 per cent—pay staff at a wage that is on average equivalent to or higher than the national living wage.

Will the member take an intervention?

Yes, if the member is quick, because every time he stands up, he makes a speech.

Stephen Kerr

Frankly, I am not sure that I would be allowed to do that. Emma Harper was quick to intervene on my colleague when he cited the SNP, the Scottish Green Party and the Government and their ignorance of rural Scotland. In her conversations with the people whom she mentioned in her speech, did they not tell her what they tell us all about how they feel about the SNP-Green Government?

Emma Harper

I thank the member for the intervention—it wisnae as short as I had hoped. In my engagement with the estates, they have been very respectful and polite. We have been frank in our discussions about how we take forward what we need to do on land use and other things that I will come on to.

The jobs that are supported by rural estates sustain populations in some of our most fragile rural communities, but the contribution that estates make to rural communities is wider than that. The evidence that has been presented by Scottish Land & Estates shows that rural estates provide homes for around 8,250 private tenants and around 4,700 agricultural tenants across Scotland. Those homes underpin many rural communities, enabling people to live in parts of Scotland where housing options would otherwise be limited. Rural estates also lease land to around 1,400 crofters and farmers. Those enterprises form the backbone of many Scottish communities and therefore play an important role in creating the thriving resilient communities that are envisaged in the Government’s national outcomes framework.

Since my election in 2021, I have been able to visit and engage with estate owners and managers of the land across Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders. Recently, during the October recess, I visited Dalswinton estate and met Peter Landale to discuss how Scotland’s estates work to support rural communities and rural housing and meet Scotland’s net zero targets in the face of the global climate and biodiversity emergencies. We discussed how to define sustainability, and Peter described efficiency of production, animal welfare, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, quality and community. The cabinet secretary, Màiri McAllan, took a question from me last week about the sustainability definition.

I am conscious of the time, but at Dalswinton estate, just like at Raehills estate near Moffat, which I visited early in the summer, we talked very frankly about what can be done for rural estates to support biodiversity and tackle the climate emergency. Dalswinton estate provides the local community cafe in the village to Emma Pagan rent free to provide a space for residents and visitors. Emma is also an amazing florist. Another thing that Dalswinton estate has been good at is providing business space for Claxton’s whisky production, so that Claxton’s can grow and expand its business in the south of Scotland.

I will stop there, but I welcome the debate. Mr Carson’s motion was very positive, and that is what I wanted to focus on today.


Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

We have heard good contributions throughout the debate. I will not repeat all the comments that others have made, but I will highlight the briefing from Scottish Land & Estates, which highlights the work that estates do in creating employment, providing social housing, investing in renewable energy, promoting biodiversity and conservation. That is very welcome.

Too many times in the chamber, our discussions on land use patterns are characterised by ignorance, misinformation, prejudice and bigotry. The debate has been a welcome counterbalance to that, with a focus on facts and reality. I hope that, when we have future debates, we will hear more of that and less of the other.

To give an estate in my region as an exemplar of the contribution that estates make, I cite Atholl Estates, which is based in Blair Atholl, Perthshire. It is involved in a range of activities, including agriculture with in-hand and let farming, forestry, tourism, renewable energy projects, traditional sporting activities—which we should not lose sight of—short-term lets, provision of social housing and start-up units for small businesses. All those together provide direct employment for 90 people in a rural community, all of whom are paid at least the real living wage. That is an enormous economic contribution, and it is a level of employment that would not be possible in a rural area with other land use patterns.

On top of all that, Atholl Estates has an excellent record of engaging with the local community and supporting local community events.

That pattern of land ownership and mixed land use through a traditional estate sustains a level of employment that would not be possible with other land use patterns. Over recent years in particular, we have seen the growth of what are called green lairds, which is a pernicious development in rural Scotland. We see large corporates buying up large tracts of land, denuding them of human life and activity, and removing employment. That is a very regrettable step.

That is sometimes dressed up with the best of intentions—with trying to meet climate change targets with so-called rewilding. Rewilding is simply taking productive land, making it barren and driving away human activity and employment.

Colin Smyth

Does Murdo Fraser agree that the rise of so-called green lairds means that we need better regulation when it comes to the sale of mass amounts of our land? Lots of those sales are carried out in private, and local communities do not even know that they are taking place. They cannot even declare an interest in purchasing that land, because that is in effect done off the books. It is important that there is more openness and more public interest testing when it comes to the sale of those estates, or we will see the rise in green lairds continuing.

Murdo Fraser, I can give you the time back.

Murdo Fraser

I would like to see a revision of the whole policy approach towards meeting carbon targets, which rewards large corporates for buying up productive areas of rural Scotland and turning them over to so-called rewilding or to forestry and the planting of Sitka spruce in large numbers. It takes land out of potential agricultural and sporting use.

Planting more trees is good for the climate, but let us not kid ourselves. Planting trees destroys employment because, once people who come in as contract workers are employed to plant trees, those trees are left for 10 or 15 years, and no workers are needed to look after that land for many years to come. If land that was used for agriculture or sporting interests is turned over to forestry, jobs are taken away.

We see that on the Glenprosen estate in Angus. Jobs have been lost on what was a productive, mixed-use estate that sustained employment. Jobs in the local community and families living there—families whose children were at the local school supporting the local community and the local economy—have been lost, and they will not be replaced in our lifetimes, because trees are being planted.

We need to consider those issues extremely carefully. We need to see vibrant local communities and people employed in rural areas, and the best way that we currently have to deliver that is through the traditional mixed-use Highland estate. That is what we are debating, and that is what we should champion. We should be very careful about promoting other types of land use that are destroying employment in areas in which we need it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am conscious of the number of members who still want to contribute to the debate, so I am minded to accept a motion under rule 8.14.3 of the standing orders to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Finlay Carson to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Finlay Carson]

Motion agreed to.


Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

A wellbeing economy serves people and the planet, and it puts our human and planetary needs at its heart. It requires a huge economic and social shift. I am delighted to see so much engagement with those ideas across the political spectrum today.

The principles of a wellbeing economy underpin the nature restoration fund, which is helping Scotland’s species, woodlands, rivers and seas back on the road to recovery as well as improving the health and wellbeing of local communities. Greens in government will deliver £60 million through that fund during this parliamentary session to directly support jobs and nature, particularly in our rural communities.

As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I have had the privilege of seeing pioneering nature restoration projects up close. When Dundreggan estate, which is now managed by Trees for Life, was operated for farming and forestry, it employed just one person. Once the rewilding centre there is fully operational, it will employ 28 people in sectors from hospitality to administration, operations and wildlife management. Rewilding can mean repeopling.

The continuation of game shooting on 120 of Scotland’s estates relies on practices that cause environmental damage and harm the nature that our people treasure. How can a wellbeing economy include killing thousands of wild animals each year to optimise conditions for killing grouse for sport? How can a wellbeing economy include setting our hills on fire, inhibiting the spread of sphagnum moss, polluting rivers, causing our precious deep peat to dry out, releasing pollutants and carbon, and contributing to climate change?

How can we afford for our land to have so little positive impact? Game shooting accounts for less than one tenth of 1 per cent of our rural employment. The economic and social costs of ecological degradation are felt by everyone, while the profits of such exploitation have flowed to very few. That must change. Community and estate-led conservation and tourism projects demonstrate how successful new jobs in conservation, wildlife management and wildlife tourism can bring work and life back to our rural communities.

Before the member committed to speaking in this debate, did she read the report that Scottish Land & Estates published?

I will give Ariane Burgess the time back for that intervention.

Ariane Burgess

I am using other information that I have.

The wildlife tourism sector alone generates £276 million every year for the Scottish economy, and public access to Scotland’s land is key to that growing sector’s success. Societal shifts are challenging. We are talking about moving on from outdated ideas of what Scotland’s countryside should look like—I was glad to hear Tories also describing that—and reimagining how it could look if we prioritised nature, the environment and rebuilding our communities.

Wild deer grazing on our hillsides are a familiar sight, but there is increasing evidence that reducing deer levels and maintaining that could lead to a net increase in employment, as well as enabling the restoration of Scotland’s rainforest. That requires a joined-up approach that involves not just working with landowners but ensuring that local people are skilled in wildlife management and that there are local markets for venison.

Estates can be partners and innovators, whether that is through trialling technology to enable no-fence grazing or through developing highly efficient self-build housing, as in Rothiemurchus. From Moray Estates to Highlands Rewilding in Bunloit, Beldorney and Tayvallich, landowners, land managers, workers and rural communities can be world leaders in accelerating nature-based solutions to biodiversity collapse and climate breakdown, all while helping to rebuild local economies in a way that addresses social and environmental inequality. That is the meaning of a wellbeing economy—let us make that happen.


Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I praise my colleague Finlay Carson—also known as Hector MacDonald—for securing tonight’s debate and I praise Sarah Madden from SLE and BiGGAR Economics for putting together the report.

The people who live and work in rural Scotland and their estates, as well as their families and the wider community, should be in no doubt that the Scottish Conservatives value their contribution to Scotland’s economy. We have heard some complete nonsense from the Green Party. I am absolutely shocked that Ariane Burgess has not recognised or read what the report has to say about the contribution that estates and rural Scotland make, given that that is what we are debating.

One in 10 rural jobs are on rural estates, which are the engine rooms of rural growth and form the backbone of many of our rural communities. It is worth highlighting the significant role that they play in building resilience in our communities. The SLE report says that 83 per cent of our rural estates provide practical support to communities in times of need. My goodness, we have needed them. When storms Arwen and Babet hit, they were there to cut and clear trees, and they are there when there is snow to clear, allowing people to get to shops and ensuring that children can get to school. That role is an important one as we head towards what will probably be another hard winter.

However, no one thanks them for that, and no one cares, particularly on those benches over there. The estates must stand up for themselves, and that is exactly what the SLE report does. Across rural Scotland, people feel forgotten by the SNP-Green coalition, which remains completely out of touch with their priorities.

Today’s debate has shown that there is a lot of concern about the future of rural communities. Fergus Ewing referenced last week’s debate on rural housing, which highlighted many of the reasons behind that. We could allow rural estates to provide us with solutions to some of the problems that we face. Emma Harper referred to estates in the Borders; I point out that a single estate in my Borders constituency—the Roxburghe estate—provides almost 200 residential properties to families and estate workers. Nationally, estates provide more than 13,000 homes, and I know that they would do even more to tackle the issues around the lack of affordable housing in rural communities, given the opportunity to do so. However, rural estates and farms have one arm tied behind their backs, because of this Government’s archaic planning system, which is stifling the development of the right homes in the right places. Permitted development rights need to be extended, too.

The estates are right to push back on damaging rent controls. After one year, it is clear that those measures have served only to drive up rents and drive out investment. Barriers such as the additional dwelling supplement prevent them from providing homes for rural workers.

All of that must be set in the context of an SNP Government that has cut the housing budget, short-changing our rural communities. Our rural estates are up against it with this lot. With the SNP and Greens in power together, some are even considering divesting themselves of their involvement in the private rented sector. If the properties go, as Kate Forbes has said, the schools will go and the pubs will go. At this point, I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, because I have got one.

The kirk—[Interruption.] I am sorry—does the member want to intervene?

I do. I seek clarification on whether the member has got a school or a pub.

Rachael Hamilton

Just look at my entry in the register of members’ interests.

This evening, we have heard so much that is good in relation to what rural estates are doing. They are supporting livelihoods, enhancing biodiversity, working towards our net zero future and creating resilience in our rural communities.

However, I reiterate Stephen Kerr’s point that rural Scotland is being left behind by the metropolitan elites who signed the Bute house agreement. Central belt mandarins are saying to our rural estates—our country custodians—that what they are doing is wrong, and then they are telling them what to do. I wonder what consideration is being given to their wellbeing. They are under attack from a Government that simply does not understand them, as is reflected in the plethora of poorly evidenced legislation that the Government has introduced and which is coming down the track.

I had a lot more positivity to give to tonight’s debate, but, given the contributions that I have heard, particularly from Ariane Burgess, I have had to change my speech to stand up for rural Scotland. I will continue to do so.

Finally, I call Edward Mountain. Please be brief.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I will keep my comments brief, Presiding Officer. I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests—I have a 500-acre farm in Moray. Before anyone makes any comments, I do not have an estate, although I did spend 15 years managing estates.

I want to make a point to people who have spent time criticising estates. Most rural estates that I managed—and there were quite a few—that did not have hydro or wind farms had to rely on the owner’s income to make things happen. It was not unusual for me to go back to some of the bigger estates annually to ask the owner for £600,000 or more to make the estate function over the next year. That £600,000 is not pre-taxed—it is taxed income that the owner has to provide to make the estate work. We need to understand that and the fact that a lot of owners have altruistic motives. We can argue whether foreign estate owners are the right people to own land but, without them, there would be no estates and we would not be achieving the amount that is being achieved.

I will conclude with this: having been involved in the management of upland estates, I weep when I leave the chamber in the evening, having heard people pontificate about how they know about managing an estate, managing deer or peatland management from reading about it in a book. They should get out there on the ground and do it. It is hard work, and they might learn more from doing that than they will from just getting ink on their fingers.


The Minister for Energy and the Environment (Gillian Martin)

Richard Lochhead was supposed to be responding to the debate, but he has sent his apologies, so I will respond on behalf of the Scottish Government.

I have enjoyed listening to the debate. I pay tribute to Finlay Carson for lodging the motion and for his excellent speech, outlining the breadth of positives that estates across Scotland offer rural communities.

I welcome the approach that was taken in the report commissioned by Scottish Land & Estates. “The Contribution of Rural Estates to Scotland’s Wellbeing Economy” sets out a positive vision of not only how rural estates contribute to Scotland’s rural economy but how they might support our transition to a wellbeing economy. The Deputy First Minister discussed that opportunity during our visit to the Rottal estate yesterday.

Speaking of visits to estates, I take this opportunity to remind Finlay Carson of a visit that we both made to the Glenfeshie estate when we were members of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in the previous session of Parliament. On that estate, some rewilding had been done on a tranche of land that had been really degraded, and we saw old photographs that showed that the land had mainly been heather. It was not the type of rewilding that was characterised by Murdo Fraser—although I know exactly where those criticisms lie—but it was absolutely incredible to see the work that had been done and the flora and fauna that were there as a result. Many species that had not been seen for a very long time were coming back. It was a superb visit.

Scotland is leading the wellbeing economy agenda on the international stage. It is one of the founding members of the wellbeing economy Governments network, and our unique position in relation to our landscape and topography gives us a head start in that regard.

Access to nature is a key tenet of wellbeing. It is not for nothing that, these days, general practitioners are offering social prescribing in the form of access to nature; it really makes a difference to a person’s health. In our view, economic activity should be geared from the outset towards the creation of a fairer, more sustainable and healthier society.

Making a just transition to a net zero, nature-positive, wellbeing economy is a strategic priority for the Scottish Government, and other Governments across Europe are learning from what we are doing. That is why the principle of a wellbeing economy is central to the Government’s three interconnected missions on equality, opportunity and community.

I now want to talk about some of the contributions that members have made during the debate. Fergus Ewing has been a passionate advocate for rural Scotland throughout his entire life, and there were very wise words from him. His points about housing were particularly pertinent. Are we doing enough to ensure that those in rural Scotland can build their own housing? We can compare that with the situation in other jurisdictions where people have the opportunity to build unique housing, so we should look at that. I certainly find that to be the case in my constituency, too.

Fergus Ewing

I am very grateful for the minister’s warm and generous remarks and for the way in which she is addressing the debate generally. However, is she aware that the clock is ticking? We are more than halfway through this session of Parliament, and it takes a while to do things. If we are going to have permitted development rights, the Government needs to get on with it. The Minister for Housing, Mr McLennan, is sympathetic to the proposals, so I hope that there can be cross-ministerial support for them. We have heard that there is also support from other political parties, so will the minister go away with her colleagues and give consideration to urgently bringing forward proposals on permitted development rights?

Gillian Martin

I am glad to hear that Paul McLennan has been sympathetic to the proposals. Even in my energy portfolio, I have been looking at community benefits in that space. Rural housing is a real pressure point for the Highlands and Islands, in particular, and given that the area will be hosting a lot of energy infrastructure, there might have to be something there in terms of community benefits.

However, I am going off piste. Coming back to the subject of estates, I will just say that, during the summer, I visited a community energy operation in Penpont, in the region that Emma Harper represents. Buccleuch Estates, as a partner, had given over the land for the generator, as well as access to the water that it owned. That is an example of an estate working with the local community for real benefit, and it was great to see it.

Emma Harper also mentioned the licensing of land to crofters, which is something that I am very much aware of. It was great to hear both Murdo Fraser and Emma Harper mention the fact that many estates pay the living wage. Given that it is living wage week, it is a good time to mention that.

Brian Whittle concentrated quite a lot of his remarks on farming. I had a wry smile, thinking of him reading the “Building a New Scotland” paper at bedtime last week. It was also great to hear Colin Smyth mention the contribution that estates make to carbon sequestration and biodiversity. A lot of our estates play host to quite a lot of our peatlands; indeed, Mr Smyth will know that peatland restoration is part of my portfolio.

That feeds into what Rachael Hamilton said about flooding, in particular. She mentioned the response to flooding specifically, but our peatland and moorlands can mitigate flooding, too, and we ignore that aspect at our peril.

Ariane Burgess talked about public access to land, which is really important and goes back to the wellbeing agenda. The land of Scotland might be owned by particular individuals or whatever, but it is our land—our country. I am reminded of a great lyric from that other son of Perthshire, Dougie MacLean, who said:

“you cannot own the land

The land owns you”.

We are all visitors and custodians of the land, and it will remain long after we are all gone.

Edward Mountain made a good point about the huge investment that many landowners make in their estates. That point was made to me and Finlay Carson at Glenfeshie, where we heard about how the economics work there.

Before I sit down, I want to say a little bit about community wealth building, which is a key tool to help us achieve an economy focused on delivering wellbeing, growing local wealth and giving communities a greater stake in the economy. It was great to hear today about how estates are involved in that through the leasing and giving of land and through helping local businesses set up. They make a contribution, and I was heartened to hear of such examples.

As I am running out of time, I will simply say, in conclusion, that the debate has provided an excellent opportunity for us all to reflect on the work undertaken by BiGGAR Economics on behalf of Scottish Land & Estates in the report that Mr Carson mentioned in his motion. That includes the approach that it has taken to assessing the contribution of the estates of rural Scotland, and what they do to enhance our own wellbeing and Scotland’s national performance more generally. I will continue to ensure that we work with Scottish Land & Estates, as a key delivery partner for the Scottish Government, to improve the outcomes of the people and communities of rural Scotland and drive forward the delivery of the Government’s vision for a wellbeing economy.

That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 18:33.