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Land reform remains divisive

Land reform remains divisive

There are undoubtedly areas of unanimity between the various interest groups when it comes to the proposed changes to Agricultural Holdings legislation in Scotland but the surface does not have to be scratched too hard for differences to emerge.

That much became apparent as the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) committee heard evidence on the subject yesterday.

For example everyone would like to see a Tenant Farming Commissioner appointed to deal with disputes before they reach the Land Court.

Indeed Dunecht Estate chief executive Stuart Young, speaking for Scottish Land & Estates, supported the immediate appointment of a temporary commissioner until any new legislation passes on to the statute books.

The scratching of the surface, this time conducted by committee chairman Rob Gibson and his SNP colleague Mike Russell, soon exposed a difference.

NFU Scotland, represented by chief executive Scott Walker and the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA) chairman Christopher Nicholson, argued for the new commissioner to have powers backed by a statutory code of practice.

On the other hand Mr Young, supported by Ken Boults representing the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) and Martin Hall of the Scottish Agricultural Arbiters and Valuers Association (Saava), only wanted the commissioner to have a voluntary code to work from.

Rather confusingly Mr Hall argued for a “voluntary code but with the commissioner to be given the teeth to take action”.

Mike Russell, who is MSP for Argyll and Bute, leapt on this saying a mixture such as this was bound to be ineffective.

“I represent tenants, some of whom are at the end of their tether,” he said.

“If it was to be a commissioner without statutory powers it would just be a case of hope deferred.”

There has been debate about whether the proposed agricultural holdings legislation should be included in the soon-to-be-debated Land Reform Bill but it soon became clear to even an amateur reader of body language that this is very much on the agenda for most RACCE members.

One of the biggest debating points yesterday centred on assignation of secure tenancies.

The recent Agricultural Holdings Legislation Review Group (AHLRG) suggested that secure 1991 Act tenancies could be assigned for value by a retiring tenant to another party.

The tenancy would first, however, have to be changed to a 35-year Limited Duration Tenancy (LDT).

Since the proposals were first aired, landlords have opposed them largely on the grounds that 35 years was an unduly long time for them to wait to regain full control of their land.

Yesterday, however, Mr Young played what had been flagged up as SL&E’s trump card, namely that such an assignation would contravene a landlord’s human rights.

Anyone adversely affected by such a move would be entitled to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and Scottish Government, because it had passed the legislation would have to pay compensation to the landlord.

On behalf of SL&E, land agents Smiths Gore had calculated that this could cost the government an eye-watering £600m.

Mr Young pointed to the Salveson/Riddell case which had lasted 10 years before the ECHR found the Scottish Government had just such a liability.

The AHLRG proposal to widen succession rights to a tenancy to a far wider grouping of family relations could similarly adversely affect a landlord’s human rights, Mr Young suggested.

Mike Russell was again having none of it.

“I don’t think using EHCR as a big stick is the way forward on this,” he said.

“Tenants have human rights too.”

Mr Young replied: “It would have been irresponsible of me not to have pointed this risk out to you today.”

Steering clear of the ECHR issue, Scott Walker admitted the 35-year term of any newly assigned LDT was the biggest point of contention among NFUS members.

Landowning members with rented land thought it was unreasonably long with tenant members thinking otherwise.

“We had thought about 25 years would be right with assignation only to a new entrant allowing an older tenant to retire,” he said.

“Remember over 70% of secure tenancies already have a successor in place under current legislation.”