Brian Henderson: It’s worth taking time to get land reform bill right

Lord Gill's decision sparked calls for reform. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Lord Gill's decision sparked calls for reform. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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I’ve never been a great believer in the old adage that a good settlement is one in which neither side is happy.

It’s been applied to many situations where a compromise must be reached and assumes that creating a degree of disappointment on both sides is a sign of having struck a better deal than one in which one side is cock-a-hoop, while the other is left devastated.

But, judging by comments and analysis on the issue over the weekend, minor disappointment on all sides looks likely to be the very best to which the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Bill can aspire as it continues its stormy passage towards the statute book.

While it was to be expected that some quarters would continue their cry that the bill had gone too far while others would haul it up for not going far enough, there might have been a reasonable expectation that the Scottish Parliament’s body charged with scrutinising the bill – the well-respected rural affairs, climate change and environment (RACCE) committee – might have reached some consensus on the issue in their report on stage one, released on Friday.

While the voluble extremities grabbed the opportunity to reel off their usual emotive media soundbites, the report itself criticised the bill for failing to give enough detail for the committee to judge just how far it had actually gone – and for sidestepping some of the tough decisions which would make this clear.

But, even within the committee, opinion was so split that there was dissent and dissatisfaction over the published findings.

Now, almost by definition land reform is bound to have huge repercussions for the farming industry. With the majority of the political power being both urban-centric and left-leaning, changes – which many might say are long overdue – are likely to be afoot. And, as there’s still a lot of historical baggage being carried about out there, the issue was always going to become a free-for-all, point-scoring, pay-back time, political football.

So when the news that the fairly technical issue of reviewing the clearly flawed Agricultural Holdings Act was to be lumped in with the wider bill was announced earlier in the year, alarm bells started ringing.

Few, especially on the tenants’ side, would argue that, ever since the then Lord Justice, Brian Gill, overturned the Land Court’s ruling in the Moonzie case, an overhaul of holdings legislation has been required.

But most would have preferred discussion of the underlying problems to have been conducted away from the showboating political posturing over wider land reform.

In legal terms I guess the 2003 holdings act, which many see as the root of the current problems, is a mere infant.

It, too, was drawn up with the aim of building fairness into tenancy legislation, but sadly – and much to the detriment of its well-intentioned aims – the actual drafting of the act became a neglected side show, eclipsed by arguments over right to buy and other political issues all of which swiftly fizzled out when the spotlight of media attention was aimed elsewhere.

So, as football commentators are want to say, it looks like a case of déjà vu all over again when, just when minds needed to concentrate on the job in hand, those seeking to make political capital out of the issue reopened the can of worms marked “right to buy”.

It is difficult not to sympathise with those who feel they have been downtrodden by poorly drafted legislation exacerbated by the pernicious attitude of some land agents – but, as was pointed out when discussions on the holdings legislation began, what might be good for individual tenants might not necessarily be good for the tenanted sector as a whole.

Recognising the failings of previous legislation, a massive amount of groundwork has been carried out this time around to identify where the problems lie and which issues need to be addressed.

It would be madness to lose focus and throw all that away by, once again, being diverted by emotive issues at the last minute, leading to a dash towards a settlement which will, inevitably, please no-one.