Mistrust between landowners and tenants is growing

Scotland's pick '˜n' mix offering of farm tenancy legislation, introduced with declining degrees of confidence over the past 18 years by changing Holyrood governments, has failed.

Not a single tenancy was agreed between a willing landowner and a hopeful tenant in Scotland last year. Picture: Kimberley Powell
Not a single tenancy was agreed between a willing landowner and a hopeful tenant in Scotland last year. Picture: Kimberley Powell

That is the only conclusion to draw from the report that last year not a single tenancy of any kind – long duration, short duration, middling duration, can I get a week in August? – was agreed between a willing landowner and a hopeful tenant in Scotland.

How far from the brave announcements of the early years of this century when governments tried to make tenant farming agreements more flexible, make the semi-mythical farming ladder more attainable to new entrants, make the sector more vibrant.

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Unfortunately, some members of governments in a previous era also had compulsory right to buy for sitting tenants on their agenda. As soon as that became apparent, landowners panicked. Any number of name changes for their association – at time of writing, Scottish Land & Estates – didn’t alter that fact.

With hindsight, that marvellous science, we should have recognised compulsory right to buy as the death knell of tenant farming. I don’t find it easy, but try to look at it from the landowner’s point of view – that an increasingly valuable asset could be bought by the sitting tenant for about two-thirds of its market value.

Theoretically, that right to buy would only apply to the “traditional” long-term – three generations at least – tenancies. But landowners became increasingly unwilling to risk letting land on the new fixed-term tenancies, five to 15 years.

And where such tenancies were agreed there have been some horror stories in recent years. The small print has not been checked, evictions have taken place, one at least led to a suicide. Distrust between landowners and tenant farmers is one of farming’s truisms, but recent years have probably seen relations at a record low.

I suppose that should be qualified and a large part of the qualification involves land agents. There must be estates where the agent for the landowner and the tenants he has the job of extracting rent from reach agreement amicably. I also accept that there are bad tenants as well as grasping agents.

But complaints about treatment of existing tenants have increased in recent years. That shows when most letters of complaint from tenants are “name and address supplied” because of fear of reprisals.

A sad thing in a free country when those who still comprise about one-third of Scottish farming are afraid to put their name to a complaint about a landowner, as ­telling a fact as no new tenancies in 2016.

Where do we go from here? A year ago the Scottish Government’s adviser on tenant farming, Andrew Thin, said there was dissatisfaction about the “unnecessarily confrontational” conduct of some land agents in their dealings with tenant farmers, whatever their type of tenancy.

He added: “Something is clearly going wrong in certain cases and it is vital action is taken quickly to get on top of this.”

He could say that again, and probably did. But as from this month Thin has been replaced by an official tenant farming commissioner who will also be one of the six members of the new Land Commission.

Good luck to Dr Bob McIntosh, the former civil servant who was Scottish Government director for environment and forestry and before that director of the Forestry Commission, Scotland.

Theoretically, the Land Commission will have powers to enforce codes of practice to give tenant farmers a fairer deal. I suspect that they, and the commissioner, will have their work cut out. Cornered land owners can be dangerous.

As ever, of course, the question is that if farm tenancies are a poisoned chalice, why are so many desperate to get one of any kind and why should we worry that no tenancies were let last year? Send answers to the commissioner.