The soaring peaks and sweeping glens must have seemed a long way from the sky-scraping canyons of Manhattan and 620 Eighth Avenue, the New York Times’ 52-storey HQ.
David Segal, surveying the rugged beauty of the Highlands, did not take long to get a feel for the place, however. The esteemed reporter had flown in to investigate the market forces howling across our wild lands as the rush to off-set carbon emissions sends land prices spiralling faster and faster, higher and higher.
After investigating for a bit, he concluded: “For the vast majority of Scots, though, the frenzy is like a party in their backyard that they can’t attend.”
It is, of course, not the first time we have not been invited to the party. Right now, however, in the scramble to secure swathes of Scotland, public money, and some planet-saving kudos, we don’t even hear about the party until the taxis arrive.
Last year, as the price of Scottish farmland soared by 31% compared to 6% in England, almost half of the estates sold went to corporations, investment funds or charitable trusts “motivated by the potential for carbon off-setting,” according to the Scottish Land Commission.
The villages and scattered communities living in the Highlands might find out after the land where they live has been sold but probably not before with a third of farmland and two-thirds of estates bought after so-called off-market sales.
As journalist, former Labour minister, and Lewis man, Brian Wilson, wrote in the Scotsman recently: “The area in which I live was sold last year by private bargain without a scintilla of community awareness far less consultation. It is possible for 10,000 acres of Scotland’s land to transfer from one private interest to the next without any public input, yet it can take years to gain consents to build a house.”
And that’s why it matters. While billionaires and investment fund managers snap up the country to enter the market in carbon credits with the help of millions in public money – “Bill us for the digging, and keep all the gold you can mine” as Segal put it – the people living in rural Scotland are driven off the land because there are no homes to rent and they cannot afford to build one. It was hard before but with the price of plots tripling in a year, who could?
It is not solely the blame of this Scottish Government. The Highlands have been a tartan-trewed theme park for the wealthy for centuries but the continuing lack of transparency and the failure to sensibly reform how our country is bought and sold is a terrible stain on our nation in the here and now.
It would be the blackest irony if Scotland, with the potential to, actually, really, be a world-leader in off-setting emissions, can help save the world but only by sacrificing some of our own most vulnerable communities.
The New York Times’ man will be back in Eighth Avenue by now but Gordon Gekko, another Big Apple luminary, might also have had a handle on the green rush in rural Scotland and the long-running and dismal failure to protect, never mind support, the communities living there, and he never left Wall Street.
“It’s all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation.”
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