Tenant farmers want a bigger say

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The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA) yesterday called on the Scottish Government to either set up a newly constituted land reform review group (LRRG) or to create a Lands Commission to look at farm tenancy issues.

The tenants’ group’s ire at the current LRRG’s decision not to look into tenancies as part of their remit was given further fuel when a former LRRG member, Dr Jim Hunter, criticised the Scottish Government over its lack of action on land reform.

Hunter, who stood down from the group in April for personal reasons, said earlier this week there needed to be “radical changes” to land ownership and farm tenancies. This included, as far as he was concerned, a plan to give tenants the right to buy their properties.

STFA chairman Christopher Nicholson said: “We had our reservations about the LRRG review from the start when it seemed to suffer from confusion and a lack direction.”

Initially, he claimed the LRRG had spent a disproportionate amount of time visiting large estates compared with holding only one meeting with farm tenants.

“Having been billed as a radical and far-reaching review, the work of the LRRG has turned out to be yet another anodyne report which sets out to defend and justify the status quo rather than looking for radical solutions to the land tenure system,” he said.

Nicholson said the SFTA had experienced similar disappointment last year when the Rent Review Group produced its report. “Instead of trying to modernise the rent formula to give tenants a level playing ground with affordable rents, the Rent Review Group merely rubber stamped the existing system and recommended a few tweaks to the process of reviewing rents.

“This major flaw in the tenanted sector will continue to cause division and bedevil relationships between landlord and tenant unless positive action is taken.”

Nicholson said the tenanted sector, which includes one third of all farmers in Scotland, was currently not in a good state of health. “The number of tenancies is falling, opportunities for new entrants are limited as larger units swallow up any available land, farm rents are escalating on the back of a scarce open market and relationships between landlords and tenants are as bad as ever,” he said. “The family farm which is the backbone of many rural communities is under threat.”

However, Nicholson did not support Hunter’s call for an absolute right to buy, saying his members held diverse views on the issue.

“Cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead has promised a review of tenancy legislation in 2014, but this should take place with a land tenure review in the background which has identified where the tenanted sector should be in 20 or 30 years time,” he added.

Such a vision, he believed, could only be created away from the infighting which was a regular feature of an industry influenced by powerful sectoral interests.