18 December 1998

Scots land reform plans give farms short shrift

By Allan Wright

GOVERNMENT plans for land reform in Scotland are generally hostile to agriculture as a land use, according to the Scottish NFU in its submission to the Scottish Land Reform Policy Group, which is headed by Scottish farm minister Lord Sewel.

But union vice-president Peter Chapman has already won an undertaking from the minister that proposals to give local communities much greater say in land use decisions will not stretch to dictating how a farm is run on a field-by-field basis.

"That was a major worry and I was glad to receive an assurance from Lord Sewel at a recent conference on land reform," said Mr Chapman.

"However, the minister has still failed to define exactly what is meant by the community or the exact degree of involvement," he added.

The union was concerned that the lack of definition could lead to unreasonable influence by single interest pressure groups. It wanted community involvement restricted to major issues like whether land should be farmed, planted with trees, or built upon.

The NFU insisted that farmers who wanted to diversify should not have to get permission from some local, self-appointed group.

There was concern about the conditions seen to be pervading the consultation paper. The union argued that cross-compliance – linking farm subsidies to environmental conditions – must be on an EU basis. "To attempt to base cross-compliance on local rules would run the risk of unfair competition in Europe," the union stated.

Mr Chapman was more forceful: "To say that public assistance should depend on a farmer fitting in with some arbitrarily defined local development strategy – in which he might have no say – seems bizarre and unfair," he said. Continued strong opposition to rates relief for agriculture and forestry was also promised.

But the union welcomed moves to give tenants the right to buy when land became vacant, and also greater freedom to diversify. There was also acceptance that compulsory purchase should be available if land was not being properly managed. But with that came a warning that compulsory purchase could create a blight on land values and reduce the borrowing capacity of farms.

The union recommended simpler and cheaper resolution of landlord/tenant disputes, favouring a move to refer all issues to the Scottish Land Court which would decide if arbitration was needed and set a time limit for a decision.

The final recommendations of the land reform group are expected early in the new year.