NFU says flexibility is the key to tenancy reform

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Although it was far from unanimous, there was a fair degree of support for more flexibility in letting land in Scotland in the future as a remedy for the decreasing numbers of farm tenants

And part of the vision put forward at a conference in Edinburgh organised by NFU Scotland was that more tenanted land would come from small-scale owner-occupiers, whom one delegate said were currently “scared stiff” by the legislation surrounding tenancies.

Union president Nigel Miller started the ball rolling, describing tenancy laws as a “paradise for lawyers.” He wanted to see a “freeing up” of the 2003 Act, which created short-term tenancies to offer more letting options to farmers without the cash to purchase land.

“Our ring-fenced, traditional tenanted sector increasingly operates in a climate of short-termism, which is inhibiting investment and new entrants to farming,” he said.

He wanted to create a blueprint for the future and that included exploring areas like share-farming, rent for reconstruction, freedom of contract and other devices. “These could be the basis for creating new opportunities in Scotland’s land tenure system,” he added.

For Andrew Bruce Wooton, of Atholl Estates and for Robert Balfour of Balbirnie, the answer to creating more let land was for there to be more flexibility in tenancy agreements.

Clive Phillips of Brodies, referring to the restrictions in current legislation – which he said impinged on modern day farming – called for more open contracts between farmers and landowners.

One contrary voice was Professor Phil Thomas, who chairs the Tenant Farming Forum (TFF), created a decade ago to sort out problems arising from the 2003 Land Reform Act. He claimed many of the current problems were not with the legislation but with the process in dealing with the laws.

He claimed progress was being made in making the laws work but, while accepting the TFF group could help with sorting out details, Miller said it would need another body to drive through any major change.

Scottish Government rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead described land management as “the biggest issue” on his desk and also one with “no easy answers”.

The government has pledged to review tenancy legislation next year and Lochhead promised that ideas such as share farming would be progressed if the industry put them forward.

l Christopher Nicolson has resigned as chair of NFU Scotland’s tenant farmers’ group (TFG) having taken over the chairmanship of the Scottish Tenant Farmers’ Association (STFA).

A divide between the two bodies emerged last week, with the Union accepting that the Land Reform Review Group would not look at tenancy reform while the STFA called this omission a “real cop out.”

The current vice-chair of TFG, Tom Johnstone, is expected to step up.