Land reform report opens up several old wounds

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Any views emerging from the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) set up last year by the Scottish Government to take a radical look at land ownership issues were always likely to be controversial, with a history of division and dispute littering the territory.

So the publication of the LRRG interim report – the final document is due a year from now – produced not unexpected reactions and a small degree of hostility from Scottish Land & Estates (SLE).

But what irritated the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA) was not what was included in the interim report but what was excluded, with the LRRG deciding that tenancy issues should be dealt with by the Tenant Farming Forum (TFF).

Dr Alison Elliot, who chairs the group and who, with the resignation of Sarah Skarratt this week following the stepping down of Jim Hunter last month, is the only remaining original member of the group, admitted several tenant farmers had made submissions but felt the issues raised might take the group away from the main remit which focuses on communities and land ownership.

This view was met with “incredulity” by the STFA, who described it as a “bitter pill”, chairman Christopher Nicholson saying: “While some of the technical tenancy issues can be tackled by the industry, the Land Reform Review Group presents an opportunity to carry out a more holistic overview of the future of Scotland’s rural communities.”

He added that, on a LRRG visit to Islay at the invitation of the farm tenanted community, the group heard at first hand of the difficulties experienced by the tenant farming community, views reinforced in a later wider public meeting that day.

“The LRRG report will prove to be ineffectual if it continues to ignore such burning and basic issues and abandons tenancy reform to the long grass of a stakeholder group, dominated by landed interests,” he said.

However, both NFU Scotland and SLE were content to leave tenancy issues for the TFF, with the union using the opportunity to advertise their own seminar on tenancy issues next week.

Speaking at their annual meeting in Perth, SLE chairman Luke Borwick said he was more concerned with other aspects of the interim report including “minimum engagement standards and landlord accreditation for active engagement, as well as the possibility of sanctions where engagement is evidently and repeatedly not forthcoming”.

Borwick said “Private land and property owners already operate within an onerous regulatory environment involving significant scrutiny from a range of agencies and bodies.

“Whilst we are fully supportive of promoting good practice in terms of community engagement, we cannot support calls for the introduction of mandatory standards and sanctions for non compliance.”

The SLE was also concerned about a proposed easing of regulations surrounding the community right to buy legislation. According to the SLE, the setting up of a land agency to deal with such applications was a move away from the practice of “willing buyer, willing seller” into one of forced asset sale and that “was to be resisted”.