An ongoing campaign by landowners to derail the Scottish Government’s proposals for allowing older tenant farmers to retire while offering new entrants the chance of taking up a secure tenancy failed to change the minds of Scottish Parliament scrutineers yesterday.
The amendment on assignation put forward by the Scottish Government in December was stoutly defended by cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead as the rural affairs, climate change and environment committee spent another day reviewing stage 2 of the Land Reform Bill.
Stressing that the proposal was not for open assignation, he said the policy had been developed extremely carefully and it did not, as had been claimed in some quarters, represent a threat to let land.
He said: “The amendment would only allow farmers with a secure 91 Act lease who had no successors to assign their tenancies to either new entrants or those moving a step up the farming ladder – and even then the landowner will always be given the first refusal to buy back the lease.
“And I take issue with claims that this reduces the opportunity for landowners to regain possession of their land – in truth it has provided a new one which didn’t exist before.”
He said that as no new 1991 Act tenancies had been created over the past decade the move could not be accused of stemming the flow of secure tenancies, adding: “We have explored carefully the implications and relative merits of this with regard to the rights of landowners, tenants and the wider public interest.”
The committee voted by seven votes to two in favour of the amendment.
Landowners’ body Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), however, reacted angrily to the news, claiming that the terms of the amendment would be in breach of property rights and stated that industry experts calculated that compensation claims against the Scottish Government could be several hundred millions of pounds.
SLE chairman David Johnstone said that it was “deeply regrettable” that Lochhead had dismissed genuinely held concerns from across the industry on these measures and stated that striking a balance of property rights for all parties was essential.
Roddy Jackson, factor at Roxburghe Estate, which had created a number of new tenancies in recent years, said that the amendment would act as a brake to farming opportunity – and a further loss of land from the tenanted sector.
However, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association chairman Christopher Nicholson welcomed the news.
He stressed that the proposal was a carefully targeted measure which, in practice, was most likely to be used as an informal template to facilitate deals between landlord and tenant.
Calling for some of the heat to be taken out of the land reform debate, Nicholson said: “Tenancy law is an emotional and complex subject and too often minds are made up based on prejudice, ignorance, a lack of information and threats of dire consequences.
“It is now incumbent on all involved in the tenanted sector to buckle down and take advantage of this opportunity to breathe new life into our ailing tenanted sector.”