MSPs laying down battle lines over tenancy reform

There was a clash of opinions in the Scottish Parliament yesterday over the effect which the proposals to allow farm tenancies to be assigned to new entrants would have on the availability of leased land.

MSP Alex Fergusson was not happy with the plans

While the increasingly emotive topic of the assignation amendment to section 79 of the land reform bill was not due to be fully discussed by the rural affairs, climate change and environment committee until next week, yesterday’s meeting saw a brief dress-rehearsal highlighting where battle lines would be drawn.

Galloway MSP Alex Fergusson said that the move would damage confidence amongst landlords and lead to a reduction in the amount of land made available for lease. Proposing an alternative approach which he said represented a “less severe breach of a landlord’s property rights”, he said: “The less severe the breach, the more likely an owner of land is to make it available for rent.”

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However, rural affairs cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead defended the Scottish Government’s proposed amendment, stating that by allowing a new entrant to take over the secure tenancy, the move would help ensure that the land remained within the tenancy sector.

There was also a difference of opinion over responses to the proposals from the farming industry itself.

While Fergusson said that it was predictable that the landowners organisation, Scottish Land & Estates, would be against the move, the fact that NFU Scotland had expressed fears that the amendment would create greater tensions in the rental sector showed where the agricultural view lay.

However, Lochhead said that, while the NFUS’s opinion had only recently been submitted, he had already heard from representatives within the union who wholeheartedly supported the government’s approach to the issue.

And speaking yesterday, NFU Scotland chief executive Scott Walker said that, following an extensive consultation, there had been a broad range of views expressed on the issue within the union’s membership.

He said while there had been widespread – but not unanimous – support for assignation amongst secure tenants within the union, the board of directors had felt that the original proposal for conversion to a 35-year fixed term tenancy represented the best way forward.

“The board has given its support for legislation to be broadened to enable tenants in secure tenancies to pass the farm down the family line and for proposals to allow secure 91 act tenancies to be converted to a modern limited duration tenancy with the ability to be sold on the open market for a 35-year term.”

He said that as a result of this, fewer than 4 per cent of secure tenants would be excluded from using established traditional routes to pass on their tenancy.

Taken together with indications that the amendments could undermine people’s confidence in letting land and concerns within the industry that there could be a knock-on effect into fixed term tenancies, Walker said the union as a whole had not supported the amendment – although individuals were still free to express their own views.