The chairman of the Scottish Land Commission has waded into a row about the treatment of two tenant farmers on the Buccleuch estate in Scotland – a move which has left landowners feeling “deeply concerned”.
Andrew Thin has questioned Buccleuch Estates’ treatment of tenants David and Alison Telfer in a continuing dispute over the ending of their tenancy agreement.
The couple, who have farmed at Cleuchfoot, near Langholm, for 20 years, have been given until November 2019 to vacate their farm, which they occupy under a Short Limited Duration Tenancy (SLDT).
In an interview with BBC Scotland, Mr Thin said he could not understand why the estate was not willing to extend the tenancy of the farm and farmhouse until the tenants reached retirement age in four years’ time.
“We don’t have any authority to force the issue but it seems an entirely reasonable request,” he said.
“I haven’t seen a reasonable explanation as to why Buccleuch is not willing to do that.”
But Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), which represents Scottish landowners, has asked for a meeting with Mr Thin to discuss his comments.
SLE chairman David Johnstone said that in light of Mr Thin’s comments his members were “deeply concerned” that the legitimate right of a landowner to resume land at the end of a fixed-term tenancy was being called into question.
“Short Limited Duration Tenancies are one of a number of tenancy vehicles which have been actively promoted by the Scottish Government, but we risk confidence being damaged again if an owner is to be criticised for legitimately resuming land at the end of a fixed-period tenancy.
“This affects small-scale owners of land as much as Scotland’s larger estates.”
However, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association said it applauded Mr Thin’s comments as it was time estates realised that tenants could not be treated as “pawns” in the land management game.
STFA director Angus McCall said: “Andrew Thin is right to stand up for the Telfers, who have only four years to go before retirement.
“STFA shares his view that it would only be reasonable and decent to let them remain at Cleuchfoot until then.”
‘Fair and reasonable’
A spokesman for Buccleuch said: “Mr and Mrs Telfer have been, over a long period of time, made aware of the estate’s intentions for the farm, particularly in relation to the upland ground.
“We offered to sell them the land where the farmhouse is situated and have always tried to find an amicable solution.
“Earlier this year we agreed a new lease on the low ground until November 2019, taking them 21 months beyond the end date of their tenancy agreement, and we believed this to be a fair and reasonable approach.
“Given our intention to sell the farm, and the fact it would be grossly unfair to many other short-term tenancy holders, it has not been possible to extend the tenure of the farm further.”
Buccleuch Estates is undergoing a major restructuring of its land holdings, involving the sale of some properties and an increase in the area of land devoted to forestry.
This has included the review of 26 arrangements involving tenants operating without secure tenancies, but within a Limited Partnership Agreement or with an SLDT.
A report by Scotland’s Tenant Farming Commissioner, published in July, concluded none of the five tenancy negotiations it had examined on the Buccleuch Estate contravened agricultural holdings legislations, but some of the discussions could have been handled with greater sensitivity.
The report noted that many tenants felt the current “business-driven strategy” of the estate was at odds with the relatively paternalistic approach they had seen in the past.
“They had come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the estate would ‘see them right’ and would be prepared to extend their occupation,” it said.
“Indeed, many of the limited partnerships had been allowed by the estate to run on beyond their planned expiry date and, while security of tenure was not guaranteed, the tenants had come to believe that this situation would continue.”
The commissioner said against this backdrop it was perhaps not surprising that some tenants felt hurt by the actions of the estate and had sought ways to challenge the decisions made.