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Property & Community Ownership

THE REAL PRICE OF PROPERTY

 Alastair McIntosh

Published in Third Way ( www.thirdway.org.uk ), Jan/Feb 2004, Vol. 27, No. 1, 22 – 25.

 

Housebuying, that sacred cow of capitalism, can cost more than a mortgage. Alastair McIntosh looks to Scotland for a more communitarian vision of home.

MY FIRST immersion in the politics of property happened in the summer of 1975, when I was working as a “ghillie”, rowing boats for salmon fishers on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, my childhood home.

As with the famous “President Kennedy question”, I can recall the exact spot where it took place. I had been out on Loch Valtos and was returning by car along the shores of Loch Holabhat with a gentleman from “down south” at the wheel. You can guess the type: Etonian accent, tweed plus fours, Barbour jacket and the green wellies that, in those days, signified a class distinction from our common black ones.

Well, this old boy was on his high horse. He was steamed up and, for want of a better audience, had chosen to deliver unto my teenage brain a sermon upon the sacred rights of property. “It’s just so wrong!” he was saying. “If they approve this new law in the Lords, heaven forbid, it will mean that the crofters will be able to get their land off us! Damn it, this country’s getting more and more like Russia every day! What do you think of that? What? What?”

The crofters – traditionally native tenant farmers who rented from landowners who were often absentee – had been campaigning for years for the right to buy the land they farmed, but in the opinion of this particular gentleman the coming reforms would only show up their shortcomings.

“They’re already incapable of managing the land properly,” he blustered. “Look at all the old cars lying about everywhere! Don’t you think it’s wrong that a man’s property can be taken off him just because a tenant decides to have it? Greed I call it. Nothing but envy for what the other chap’s got.”

For those of us who had grown up on Lewis, this seemed a strange way of looking at the world. In my community, for example, an old car out in a field served as a children’s play piece, or a valuable repository of spare parts … a memento of somebody’s life story, a store for animal feed, a henhouse, or the place where the dog has puppies. But, mindful that discretionary tips made up fully one third of the wages, I probably just went along with him. In later years, however, that discussion prompted me to think more carefully and critically about his view of property.

 

A TAINTED HISTORY

In those days we were seldom taught anything of our own history in school. Only slowly did I, and many like me, start to find out for ourselves the real story of our place. The short version of that story went something like this:

Britain as a political entity did not become fully established until the 18th century. The Union of the Parliaments in 1707 cemented the process, but considerable resistance continued in the Highlands through until the 1745 Uprising. This was brutally repressed at Culloden in 1746 – the last battle to take place on mainland British soil.

The traditional pattern of land tenure in Celtic Scotland had been a tribal one. At its best, and in theory, land was held by tribal chiefs in common for the whole “clan” – the word meaning “family”. However, since the late 16th century the Scottish, and, later, the British state had sought to commodify land as private property. Onetime principles of stewardship were gradually replaced with legal constructs of outright ownership. Stewardship became a mere figleaf legitimising private dominion. No longer was land valued mainly for the number of people it could support. The yardstick now was profit.

During the 19th century, landlords (as they were now) realised that new breeds of sheep, and wool demand created by the Napoleonic Wars, meant that previously uneconomic land had considerable profitable potential. In the process known as the Highland Clearances, people were forced out of their ancestral place and either into the cities or onto emigrant ships bound for the New World, Australasia or southern Africa.

Those left behind were eventually, after much agitation, given secure tenancy status under the 1886 Crofting Act. This still left a situation where, today, a mere 1,000 owners control nearly two-thirds of Scotland’s private land, but at least an indigenous way of life had been partly safeguarded. What was happening in my youth, just one long lifetime on from this, was that new legislation was being introduced in what became the Crofting Reform Act (1976). This was to allow crofters the right to buy out the freehold of their land at 15 times the annual rental. For a few hundred pounds, crofters could acquire typically 12 acres, and it was this seeming reversal of history which so offended the Barbour-jacketed gent.

 

DE-PRIVATISING LIFE

The interesting thing is that very few indigenous crofters availed themselves of the ’76 legislation once it was passed. One explanation is that losing tenancy status as crofters meant a loss of access to crofting grants. But I think there was another much more interesting factor at play.

In crofting communities one of the ways that the psychological dominance of landlordism has been mitigated has been through the cultural elevation of tenancy status towards having a spiritual meaning. The landlord’s claim of absolute proprietorship is seen as being idolatrous. God, after all, insists in Leviticus 25 that we can never own the land in perpetuity because we are only sojourners on the Earth who borrow it.

So, to attempt to privatise land under the 1976 Act – into a system of individual croft ownership - was seen by many as removing land from the crofting community. A better way to address the problem of landlordism would be to facilitate community land ownership. This is something that has now been legislated for under the more recent Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

The new Act allows whole communities to follow the pioneering examples which have been set relatively recently by such places as Eigg and Assynt in acquiring the land and holding it in a democratically accountable community trust. It comprises flagship legislation for the new Scottish Parliament, which has the advantage of having only one chamber and so not requiring endorsement by the House of Lords (which would probably never have permitted such a shake-up of landed power).

The 2003 Act has three main provisions. First, it allows communities in designated crofting areas to buy out their land at government valuation at any time, irrespective of whether the private landowner wishes to sell or not. Second, it allows rights of pre-emptive purchase in non-crofting areas if, but only if, the land is being placed on the market and a majority of the surrounding community have registered their interest in a community buyout. And third, it enshrines in statute the long-held view that in Scotland there exists a responsible right to roam over any land.

 

PANIC POLITICS

My interlocutor back in the Seventies would hardly have been able to contain his G & T had he known what the new millennium would bring in. The right wing press was to say it all for him. The Daily Telegraph creaked on about “Stalinism” visited upon the Highlands and the Daily Mail ran a full front page picture of Robert Mugabe to mark the Act’s passing - omitting to note that Highland landowners would be compensated in a manner that Kenya’s White Settlers are not.

But what was happening under the 2003 Act was not communism in the sense of state ownership. Neither was it peasant capitalism such as the 1976 Act had aimed to induce. Rather, a third way was now being experimented with in Scotland – one with the full backing of most of the mainline churches; one that might be called “communitarianism”.

The principle here is that God does not make land any more. Land should be held in sacred trust for the community as a whole. It is then up to the community democratically to decide what private use might be made of it.

So far, the evidence is that this stimulates the entrepreneurial spirit. Where community buyouts have taken place, innovative new businesses have started up. Previously, with bad landowners, this could not so easily happen. Countless examples are on record of where secure leases were refused, or owners would insist on a share of any profits made. For example, one crofter I know wanted to be able to sell wine with meals in his restaurant that serviced tourists. The police and local authority were happy to grant the table license, but the “laird” or landowner insisted on £3,000 for the signature granting his consent. Unable to afford this, his premises to this day remains unlicensed and visitors doubtless scratch their heads at such ostensible lack of entrepreneurial spirit.

 

WIDER HORIZONS

Parochial as such examples may seem to those living in big cities, they in fact have a profound and iconic message far beyond these remote corners of the British Isles. For if land is to be viewed as neither a State asset nor a private one, but as being under the control of the resident community, what might this say to the rest of the world?

Modernity has pushed us all down the “Enclosures” road of land being ousted from the Commons, and our places turned into a commodity to be privately bought and sold. The need for that commodity to return a profit has driven the ripping up of Britain’s beautiful landscape and a corresponding loss of both ecology and regional identities. Thomas Hardy puts it like this in Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

 These families, who had formed the backbone of the village life in the past, who were the depositaries of the village traditions, had to seek refuge in the large centres; the process humorously designated by statisticians as ‘the tendency for the rural population towards the large towns,’ being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery. [1]

Property ownership is not originally a Christian idea. Jesus himself was born in a manger, moved from house to house, and described having no place to call his own or lay his head. Rather, property rights as we know them developed out of the Graeco-Roman construct of dominium. The early monasteries needed to find some legal vehicle to hold property that did not entail private possession by an abbot vowed to poverty. The idea therefore developed that a “fictitious legal person” could be the owner – in this case, the religious order, which might endure in perpetuity. So it was that the concept of the corporation emerged. However, whereas monastic ownership was consecrated to God, the capitalist equivalents, such as the early-17th century East India Company, was consecrated more to Mammon.

Property rights, then, are a learned notion; one that many so-called primitive peoples don’t share, and one that we can rethink and rework in ways that suit the kind of society we might like to become. For example, under community land ownership there is no reason why owning a house and owning the land on which it is situated could not be considered as separate transactions. The house is yours. The land is the community’s and only leased to you. This could allow the community a voice in who you sell your house to, thereby enabling it to address the commonplace shortage of houses for people coming from within or coming in to serve a useful function within the community.

 

NARROWER LANES?

But what of the downsides of community? In his book advancing the “knowledge economy”, Living on Thin Air, one of Tony Blair’s gurus, Charles Leadbeater, opines:

Strong communities can be pockets of intolerance and prejudice. Settled, stable communities are the enemies of innovation, talent, creativity, diversity and experimentation. They are often hostile to outsiders, dissenters, young upstarts and immigrants. Community can too quickly become a rallying cry for nostalgia; that kind of community is the enemy of knowledge creation, which is the wellspring of economic growth. [2]

Leadbeater urges globalisation as the way forward. He sees it as expressing internationalism. But there is more than one path to internationalism. Globalisation is a competitive way. At its core is the oligarchy and plutocracy (government by the few and the rich) of one-share-one-vote. The communitarianism I am talking about has at its heart One World internationalism. This is based on a democracy of equality; an ethic of co-operation and respect for what is already found in a place. This latter point is crucial. Some incomers come to give and share. Others come only to take, including taking liberties. It is not acceptable to use economic power to muscle in on a community simply because property is cheaper than elsewhere, and to do so in a manner that lacks a profound respect and indeed permission from that community. The point is that place is not just physical. It is also psychospiritual. An incomer must be aware that in entering a community they are entering not just a property, but also a shared mindset.

There is nothing new about this from a Biblical perspective. In the gospels we’re always being told about place and place names. The Holy Land becomes a literal spiritual cartography – a place of places replete with layers of meaning. Painted by story, sense of place develops as a set of complexes in the collective psyche, each pregnant with archetypal significance. Truly, we are creatures not just of time, but also of space – both history and geography. Place matters because it carries meaning mapped out onto the landscape. Like Einstein saw, but in ways far beyond what his mathematics alone could tell, we humans are creatures of a space-time continuum. Like beasts with a sense of where they belong out on the hill, we have the capacity to become “hefted” to place. Our co-ordinates in space and time are benchmarks of identity. And having an identity is central to becoming fully human.

 

FOSTERING THE STRANGER

But equally, we must be careful not to assert our identity in ways that destroy that which is most wonderfully human. We have to be wary of exclusive and “blood” identities. In Celtic tradition, the very real danger of xenophobia is faced in an interesting way. Hospitality and beyond it, fostership (or adoption), are considered to be “sacred” duties. Hospitality is for the short term. Fostership comes in to play for the long haul, where mutual respect has been established. And fostership counts for more than the mere happenstance of blood lineage. Various Gaelic proverbs attest to this. “Blood to the twentieth; fostership to the hundredth degree” says one. “The bonds of milk are stronger than the bonds of blood” goes another (i.e. nurture is stronger than nature).

I think that we can see this as having profoundly Christian roots. It is Christ who goes in the stranger’s guise. And Jesus was clear that his true family were not necessarily his blood relatives.

He himself owed his position and ability to fulfill prophecy to membership of the Royal House of David. This was made possible only by Joseph’s adoption of him. We have on our wall at home an icon of Joseph about to sacrifice the two doves at Jesus’s naming ceremony. I see it as signifying the sanctity of fostership: of belonging in membership one of another to God’s community.

 

RIGHT RELATIONS

We live in a world where settled, traditional people are becoming a minority and perhaps the majority have been uprooted and wander to and fro upon the face of the Earth. The model of hospitality perhaps leading on to fostership suggests how these two ways of being might be reconciled. The “insider” to a community carries tradition and, often, an implicit understanding of “how things are done” in a particular place. The “outsider”, on the other hand, can bring wider experience and the sometimes-useful gift of new ways. Reconciling these will never be easy, but it is of vital importance.

How can this be done? Well, in Quakerism we try to approach difficult issues by seeking to lay aside our own ego concerns and discern the deeper movement of the Spirit of God. Similarly, I think it is true that in communities of place, there is such a thing as the Spirit of Place – divine wisdom that can be discerned through learning to listen to the place itself. The acerbic Edmund Spenser put it rather well when he went to Ireland to advise Elizabeth I on how best to colonise that country. A formidable obstacle, as he saw it, was the tendency of earlier generations of English settlers to go native and become more Irish than the Irish themselves! "Lord," he proclaimed, "how quickly doth that country alter one’s nature". I think that we might surmise that a person belongs inasmuch as they are willing to cherish, and be cherished, by a place and its peoples. This implies a duty on the incomer to listen and learn, and so to set their seeds without trampling on what is already growing there. And a duty that the indigenous community recognises that whilst a tree must have roots, it must also remain open in the branches.

 

MAGNIFIED JUSTICE

Ultimately, all property is, theologically speaking, God’s gift of Providence. Right property relations are those of justice within the community, ensuring that the needs of all are met by advancing sufficiency before surplus. The true community can never become an elite plutocracy, because the duty of fostership protects against bloodline oligarchy.

In a world where many lack a home, this has profound implications for how we shape our communities and whom we might count as in-group and out-group. It resonates with Christianity, in the words of Luke’s Magnificat of Mary, as a religion that “magnifies” a God who “hath put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly”; the religion of a God who, “has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

Challenging stuff, I say. What do you think of that? What? What?

 

Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology and a founder of the land trust that brought the Isle of Eigg into community ownership in 1997. He has also helped lead the campaign that has so far stopped a “superquarry” on the Isle of Harris in a National Scenic Area. He lectures at venues around the world, including annually at Britain’s foremost military staff college (on nonviolence!). He is best known as the author of Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum Press, £12.99) described by the Bishop of Liverpool in Jesus and the Earth as “life changing … a map for my journey”. Many of his articles are online at www.AlastairMcIntosh.com .

[1] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Wordsworth Classics edition, Ware, Herts, 1993 p.395

[2] See Guardian website for longer extract: books.guardian.co.uk/leadbeater/story/0,6550,131261,00.html

 

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27 March 2004

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