Defra’s ‘partial’ plans for tenancy reform in England ‘disappoint’

Tenant farmer representatives have accused Defra of taking a “pick and mix” approach to reform of the tenanted sector in England, saying ministers have shied away from the more comprehensive proposals set out in the Rock Review presented last autumn.

That document, which contained 74 specific recommendations, was the culmination of nine months’ work by the Tenancy Working Group, which was set up to provide a framework for a more resilient tenanted sector.

The long-awaited government response was published on Wednesday 24 May, and includes plans for a new Farm Tenancy Forum and a new Tenant Farmer Commissioner.

See also: Rock report recommendations on farm tenancies

The forum will seek to “facilitate more collaborative relationships between landlords and tenants, and help to shape farming policy”, says Defra.

The commissioner’s role is as yet unspecified, but will be more fully developed following a “call for evidence” this summer.

The Rock Review suggests its key functions should be to “tenant-proof” emerging support schemes, ensure good practice by land agents, and improve dispute resolution.

Vital importance

Defra farming minister Mark Spencer said the Rock Review had underlined the “vital importance of the tenanted sector and the action needed to help it thrive”.

“At the centre of the review was a call for tenant voices to be heard by government and that we remove barriers to accessing our farming schemes,” he said. “That’s what we’re delivering.”

Mr Spencer also pointed to other recent government provisions for tenants – for example, allowing them to sign up to three-year Sustainable Farming Incentive agreements without landlords’ consent.

The Treasury has also launched a consultation that could limit inheritance tax relief to those landlords willing to let land for more than eight years.

Delivery

Baroness Kate Rock, who chaired the 2022 Tenancy Working Group, said she welcomed the government’s commitment to the tenanted sector and its willingness to focus on delivering the objectives of the Rock Review.

“I would, however, have liked the response to fully recognise all the findings of the review, in particular regarding the increase in new clauses being inserted into farm business tenancies, and on tenants engaging in diversified activities,” she said.

“And while I welcome the new Farm Tenancy Forum, this must be focused on implementing the findings of the review to be successful.”

‘Pick and mix’

But the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) has criticised what it sees as a “partial approach” to the issues affecting the tenanted sector.

“The government has decided to take a ‘pick and mix’ approach to the recommendations rather than taking them as a considered whole, which seems to defeat the object of bringing in independent expertise to inform government policy,” said TFA chief executive George Dunn.

He welcomed Defra’s acceptance of the need for a new code of practice to govern relationships between tenants, landlords and their agents.

But it was “hugely disappointing” that the provisions allowing tenants to apply for shorter SFI agreements without landlord consent had not been extended to the Countryside Stewardship or Landscape Recovery schemes.

Collaboration

Country Land and Business Association president Mark Tufnell said he was pleased Defra had recognised that proactive collaboration between landlords and tenants would always achieve the best outcome. 

“This is particularly true when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by new Defra schemes – where the needs of the tenant must rightly be balanced with the rights of the landowner.”

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