Article in the Scotsman by John Blundell

I AM always fascinated by the older dwelling houses we can discover in Scotland. The Skara Brae settlement on Orkney is a thrilling place to see. The stone tables and shelves are so nearly as they must have been abandoned thousands of years ago. It is a tease to try to recreate those lives in the imagination.

I also enjoy the Auchindrain Folk Museum near Inverarey In Argyll. It illustrates a life only two or three generations from every Scottish family. Yet I have never seen an archaeologist consider whether or not we owned our homes in the past.

My own guess was a sort of familial ownership. I believe the act of owning something transforms our relationships and our purpose. Partly it is all a matter of psychology but ownership has its corollary – the right to sell… or the right to borrow against it.

There are exciting projects being undertaken abroad which may yet be applied to transform our towns here. Every city in Brazil is surrounded by shanty towns. These “favelas” evolve from being little more than cardboard boxes to quite robust structures, yet they are owned by nobody – certainly not by the occupants nor by any civic agency or landowner.

The teeming millions in these favelas have extended their range up precipitous hillsides and even on stilts out across marshes and rivers.

More than two million Brazilians live in such locations. They are barred from any proprietary rights. They cannot get post delivered. No water or electricity will be supplied into what are no-go areas for the formal agencies of the nation. Whatever energies these people possess do not reach the trading part of the community let alone the rest of the world. These propertyless millions are locked into poverty by the official system which cannot or will not recognise them.

An inspirational movement is underway in Brazil to endow the shanty town dwellers with ownership to their shacks. The new left-leaning president of the Republic is an interesting phenomenon – a conventional radical by instinct but a counter-revolutionary in practical terms. An old-fashioned Stalinist would bulldoze down these towns and erect ghastly soul-crushing tower blocks, as Edinburgh Council did.

But in fact the new Brazilian initiative is to simply confirm and endow these humble homes with the elementary but magical rights of ownership.

The speed of improvement by self help is astonishing. How rapidly corrugated iron and papier mache gives way to tiling and brick. Neighbours buy out neighbours. What was a dark hovel becomes a light and airy home. Soon electricity and water will be conducted to transform the entire community.

Many frictions remain to be resolved but these are done by quick cheap arbitration rather than elaborate slow State courts.

If any one man has a paternity claim to these reforms it is Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian who blames the endemic poverty of Latin America to a lack of capitalism rather than an excess. De Soto says most of the populations of South America are locked out of the formal markets – certainly all the native peoples. They simply have no meaningful claims to property and hence no security.

We could match these reforms in Scotland’s cities. All council and housing association homes should be given to their residents. This manner of thinking can go further than property.

Chancellor Gordon Brown’s child endowment notion is a local proof of this new manner of thinking. If families saved their child allowance instead of blowing it on groceries or cigarettes every child could start adult life with a tidy lump sum, or save it until 65 and be assured of a million.

We are not so different from the Brazilians. There are vast areas of our civic lives where we have no property rights. If Scotland’s schools were removed from municipal control and given to us all, the transformation could be as rapid as in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Dud teachers would go. The talented ones could quadruple their incomes. Education might reflect the real world rather than the frozen minds of the educational overlords.

I used to think it was the Conservatives who would dissolve schools. Now I think the forces of liberation will come from the Left. Ministers know that the billions poured into schooling almost evaporate in the squalor and hopelessness of too many schools. Mr and Mrs Blair did not even entertain the idea of subjecting their children to Islington’s municipal schools.

It may seem fanciful to suggest the reform of Brazil’s slums will alter Scotland’s schools but I believe they token a profound realisation that what people need is not coercion but the dignity of choice. Giving the schools to every community would be truly radical and break the solid consensus between the political parties.

I would like to bring Hernando de Soto to Scotland and learn his assessment of our best hopes for libertarian alternatives.