Fury as right to buy back on agenda

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A DECADE after a furious row over whether tenants should have a right to purchase their properties, the issue is back on the agenda with a policy group set up by the Scottish Government looking at “enhancing the position of tenant farmers by giving them the right to buy their farms”.

Ten years ago, when the Land Reform Act was going through the Scottish Parliament, this 
option was raised by a number of MSPs but in the end after fierce opposition by landowners it was buried and did not make it onto the statute book.

Now the land reform review group, charged by the government with “developing innovative and radical proposals to Scotland’s land issues” has put it and a host of other possibilities on their agenda.

The three-strong group who will look at this come under the chairmanship of Dr Alison Elliot, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and her two vice chairs, Dr Sarah Skerratt from SRUC and Professor James Hunter, from the Highland and Islands University.

Alex Fergusson MSP, agriculture spokesman for the Conservative party in the Scottish Parliament and one of the politicians who battled to exclude the right to buy ten years ago, expressed his surprise at the contentious issue making a re-appearance.

“It has been the elephant in the room in all the negotiations,” he said. “The reluctance of landowners to let land can be traced back to the fear of there being a right to buy taking the land summarily away.”

Douglas McAdam, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates which represents 80 per cent of landowners in the country, described the absolute right to buy as having serious detrimental effects on the agricultural sector.

NFU Scotland indicated they had put the review group’s call for evidence out to their membership and would be awaiting responses prior to submitting a NFU Scotland view by the closure date of 11 January.

But Kenny Robertson, of Robertson Rural, Bathgate, who first heard of the review group at his local NFU meeting, described even raising the issue as “dangerous and disruptive”.

He was also very perturbed by another potential reform identified by the review group which states “to encourage or legislatively oblige owners of land to give local communities a greater say in how land is managed and used”.

Claire Baker MSP, for Labour, indicated her party’s unhappiness with the timescale set for the group, which will not issue its findings until 2014. “This will cause a great deal of uncertainty and it should have been possible to have come back more quickly,” she said.

Last night a spokesman for the Scottish Government insisted the land reform review group was an independent group looking at a wide range of aspects relating to land reform.

“The review group agreed the remit of its work independently,” he said.

Having experienced the past six months of very wet weather, farmers in Scotland are now being urged by their union to put their thoughts down in a survey aimed at tackling problems brought about by the climate.

Among the questions the farmers are being asked include quantifying the acreage remaining unharvested because of the weather. A knock-on from the wet autumn sees NFU Scotland also trying to identify the acreage of winter crops not planted.

For livestock farmers, there are questions on the impact on fodder supplies, with stock housed much earlier this year.

Possibly the most revealing question relates to the impact the weather has had on cashflows and the consequential need for extra credit facilities.

More practically, and to give power to its lobbying role, the union has included in its survey questions on which measures would most help farmers. Issues such as access to credit or a cross-compliance amnesty are suggested or with a longer term view, support for drainage or collaborative grain drying and storage.

NFUS president Nigel Miller admitted the weather in recent months had left scars on the land and broken the projected budgets of many farms.

“While the overall picture of great difficulty for Scottish agriculture is clear and we can anticipate many of the problems that are occurring on our members’ farms, if we are to take any kind of focused remedial action, we must measure the most acute pressure points,” he said.

“Our survey will help to pinpoint where intervention is needed to bridge businesses into a new season. It also explores options on how our farm businesses can build a higher level of resilience into their operations. While the new Scottish Rural Development Programme is being constructed, now is the time to prioritise drainage, crop handling and storage as part of that programme.

“We need a strong message to take to the Scottish Government.”