Lesley Riddoch: Time to tackle ‘Scotland’s shame’

SNP government’s latest land reform plans fail to protect the weak from the strong, argues Lesley Riddoch

Andrew Stoddart faces eviction from the farm to which he has given his life  and hundreds of thousands of pounds. Picture: Hemedia

Will the Scottish Government heed the will of SNP delegates to beef up its Land Reform Bill? “When the package is radical, we’ll support it,” said Nicky Lowden MacCrimmon in Aberdeen last month, after demanding stronger legislation on two counts – requiring land-owning companies to register in EU member states and producing greater protection for tenant farmers.

Progress on this latter issue will be under close scrutiny this week as Andrew Stoddart, his wife, their three children and two staff – one with a family of four children – wait to hear if the Coulston Estate in East Lothian will rethink plans to evict them all on 28 November – with scant compensation.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

During his 22 years on the farm, Andrew built a barn – “the largest in East Lothian at the time.” He paid rent for a farmhouse he was not allowed to set foot in and drained, ditched, fenced and improved the soil. “I have sweated blood to pay the rent in the all too often bad years. How can I simply walk away? Modest as it is, this is our family home.” Andrew’s improvements have been estimated at around half a million pounds, but if the eviction goes ahead he’ll get only a fraction of that sum.

The problem goes back to “defective” and rushed legislation in 2003, when the Lib Dems’ Ross Finnie, Scottish Government’s agriculture minister, was furious to discover landowners had been dissolving limited partnership tenancies – the only type of tenancy on offer since the 1980s – in an attempt to subvert plans to further strengthen tenant farmers’ rights. Limited partnerships were described by Alex Fergusson as a dodge – albeit a legal dodge - to make sure landowners could get the farm back at some future date. They were certainly not partnerships of equals. If landowners chose to change the terms, they could easily do so leaving tenant farmers high and dry.

So Finnie tried to help in the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 which allowed any limited partnership (LP) tenant farmers facing early eviction to “upgrade” to secure tenant status.

Realising what Finnie was up to, landowners took evasive action the night before legislation was due to be introduced in what many farmers remember as “the night of the long knives” when more than 300 eviction notices were issued by factors battling through snowdrifts to deliver them before midnight. Some tenants even nailed up their letterboxes after word got round.

But in the Salvesen v Riddell case, which began in the land court in 2009 and ended in the UK Supreme Court in 2013, Finnie’s manoeuvre was ruled unlawful – because landowners before and after a specific date had been treated differently. That constituted discrimination and that breached the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Shortly after losing his case, Andrew Riddell, the farmer at the centre of the long, complex legal challenge, collected one final harvest before he was due to be evicted and then killed himself.

The shock waves reverberated around Scotland’s farming community, but due to the legal complexities and a belief that agriculture is still a “specialist” area, the public knew very little about it. Still, many tenant farmers believed that if the Scottish Parliament had drafted the legislation properly, all LP tenants would have been given security, the ECHR couldn’t have been used and neither Andrew Riddell in 2013 nor Andrew Stoddart today would be facing eviction.

Indeed, the greater lesson would seem to be that half measures don’t work, and a tenant farmer’s right to buy is the only long term solution.

Presumably that’s why the Land Reform Review Group – set up by the Scottish Government – recommended it in 2014. But the SNP government dropped that proposal, fearing further legal challenge and the cost of giving low interest loans to farmers to buy their land in the same way the British government had funded Irish famers in 1903.

The Wyndham Act of that year resolved Ireland’s long-standing land problem. The Crofting Acts of 1886 gave security to smallholders in the Crofting Counties but Scotland’s tenant farmers have been left for more than a century waiting for similar protection. Unless the current Review of Agricultural Holdings Legislation is beefed up (almost) beyond recognition or SNP manifesto writers commit to another more ambitious bill in the next parliament, they’ll be waiting forever, and a few farmers like Stoddart will lose almost everything.

Andrew is one of nine tenants affected by the failed legislation of 2003, but the first to receive a notice to quit. Others could follow.

According to Scottish Tenant Farmers Association director Angus McCall: “This whole episode has become Scotland’s shame, and has seen tenant farmers become victims of a legal error, lawyers and an inflexible government process.

We all appreciate this is a complex situation, but the rulers of this country must accept a moral responsibility for the damage done though the actions of a previous government, and move without further delay to find an equitable settlement for these families.”

The alternative is that Andrew Stoddart must somehow find the cash for a long, drawn-out, expensive and uncertain legal battle with the Scottish Government for compensation.

Such a prospect is ridiculous.

There can be no claims for radical land reform by this government until Andrew Stoddart is compensated by the Coulston Trust and the Scottish Government – and other tenant farmers in the same legal trap receive justice.

Then the Scottish Government’s lawyers and civil servants must get over their paralysing fear of re-entering the legal arena and work up plans for a restricted right to buy for tenant farmers of perhaps 100 acres – allowing them to buy the farmhouse, barn, sheds and other property they have probably improved or built themselves. This right could apply to just one farm to avoid exploitation and it must be at the heart of new legislation.

Andrew Stoddart and his family have just 19 days before they are made homeless.

The Coulston Trust does not need to evict him – but it can. The Scottish Government does not need to compensate him – but it must.

lA petition with 15,000 signatures supporting Andrew Stoddart will be handed in to the ­Scottish Government after a rally at 12:30pm tomorrow outside the Scottish Parliament