Farm industry reacts to Scotland’s Land Reform Bill

The Scottish government has fired the starting gun for a summer of debate over its long-awaited Land Reform Bill.

The Bill was published on Tuesday (23 June) by Scotland’s land reform minster, Aileen McLeod.

The key measures set out in the bill are ending rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking estates, creating a tenant farming commissioner as part of the Scottish Land Commission and modernising elements of Scotland’s tenant farming legislation.

See also: Land Reform Bill under fire at Royal Highland Show

The government is also seeking to establish greater transparency on the ownership of land, through the land register and strengthening the regulators hand in instances where landowners failing to take their deer management responsibilities seriously.

“Through the Land Reform Bill we want to ensure that future generations have access to land required to promote business and economic growth and to provide access to good quality, affordable food, energy and housing,” said Dr McLeod.

“The introduction of the Bill is a significant step forward in ensuring our land is used in the public interest and to the benefit of the people of Scotland. It will also end the stop-start nature of land reform in Scotland that has limited progress.”

NFU Scotland said it would spend the summer seeking the views of its members, so it was ready to make recommendations for any necessary changes when MSPs returned to Parliament after the summer recess.

NFU Scotland’s president Allan Bowie said at the centre of any debate on land reform must be recognition that farming was the primary land use over much of Scotland, underpinning the rural economy, the landscape and the social infrastructure.

“If we are to drive forward our food and drink industries, then land reform and changes to our tenanted sector must have a positive impact on our ability to produce food and drink from the land and enhance the positive contribution already being made,” he said.

“Good land managers – and there are many of them around Scotland – should have nothing to fear from any legislative changes.”

David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, said parts of the bill would have a detrimental impact on land-based businesses and rural areas.

“The proposed right for government ministers to intervene and enforce the sale of property is a key concern. No one would try to justify bad practice when it comes to land management, but there desperately needs to be more clarity around the circumstances in which a government minister thinks it will be right and proper for he or she to decide a landowner is a barrier to sustainable development and forcibly remove someone’s property.”

Mr Johnstone claimed the proposals on the table with regard to tenants were also a mixed bag.

“We are supportive of the creation of a tenant farming commissioner for Scotland and, hopefully, this will address tensions that emerge from time to time. We also welcome the amnesty on tenant improvements – a measure we put forward initially.”

But he added: “The widening of succession rights for 1991 Act tenants is too broad and does not in our view strike the right balance of rights of interests of the tenant and the landlord. We strongly suggest that tests be applied where a successor should have to demonstrate a working connection to the farm.”

The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association claimed the Bill started the process of modernising the land tenure structure in Scotland.

The association said it welcomed the bill’s proposals to strengthen the position of tenants on traditional secure leases by creating a fairer system of reviewing rents, extending succession rights and recognising the need for proper end of tenancy compensation.

“However, STFA is disappointed that the Bill has rejected proposals which would have done much to address and reverse core issues in the steadily diminishing tenanted sector,” it said.

“The ability to freely assign 1991 secure tenancies has been excluded and the Bill has omitted any resolution to the plight of Small Landholders currently stuck with leases held under anachronistic legislation drawn up over a century ago in 1911. 

“As the Bill stands there is very little help for new entrants, limited partnership tenants whose leases have been terminated, or any positive measures to bring more land to the letting market.”