The Land Reform Bill is a win but there’s still ground to be gained
The National, by Lesley Riddoch
It hasn’t made land more affordable. It hasn’t put more land on the market. Scotland has the smallest group of landowners in the developed world and doubtless still will when the Scottish Parliament debates the Land Reform Bill in March.
But yesterday’s meeting of Holyrood’s Rural Affairs and Climate Change Committee (RACCE) was a game-changer because now that legislation looks likely to be fairly feisty – against all the odds.
Scotland’s 5,000 tenant farmers and land reform campaigners were on tenterhooks yesterday to see if Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead would buckle under the mountain of emails and letters from landowners and factors opposed to strengthening the rights of tenant farmers. He didn’t. And even though the sole Liberal Democrat on the Committee voted with the Tories – shameful for the party that introduced land rights for crofters in 1886 – Labour and SNP members voted through a new system letting tenant farmers retire with dignity and cash for their improvements, thereby letting new and progressing farmers in. Yip, in quasi-feudal old Scotland, radical change is just that modest.
At present most tenant famers stay working well beyond retirement age because there’s no guarantee they’ll get recompense if they quit. That stymies the movement of new farmers and young folk onto the land and creates a general air of fearfulness and stagnation.
The Scottish Government’s proposal means landowners get first option to buy back the tenancy, but if they don’t the outgoing farmer can assign the tenancy to new entrants at market value – and that’s completely new.
The committee has also agreed in principle that rent levels should henceforth be based on the productive capacity of the land, not its commercial value. So it won’t matter if a field is the only farmland east of the Clyde – it’ll be assessed on the basis of what crops it can sustain, not what its scenic location or scarcity value could command.
To anyone from another country, it may seem amazing that such gentle change could produce such a fierce reaction.
But it did.
Scottish Land and Estates warned that allowing tenant farmers without successors to sell on their tenancies “breaches property rights and will almost certainly lead to legal challenge and very substantial compensation claims.”
The landowners’ organisation argued it would be almost impossible for them to ever get back control of their farms as those who purchase the tenancies would be entitled to pass it on to a wide range of people when they retire. Errm … precisely.
David Johnstone, Scottish Land and Estates’ chairman, said that was a “major threat” which would backfire because landowners would refuse “to let land on anything other than a short-term basis” if it went ahead.
Now call me easily offended, but that sounds like a threat. That sounds like a small group of landowners trying to stymie the will of our democratically elected parliament. Of course landowners are free to use their considerable resources of cash to oppose this through the courts. After all, that’s the tack those other upholders of human rights like the tobacco and alcohol industries have taken to try and wear down progressive politicians. Thankfully and admirably, the Scottish Government has refused to cave in so far, and Scottish Land and Estates might consider whether it does their members any good to be seemingly intent on holding the government to ransom.
Besides, as RACCE member and SNP MSP Dave Thomson pointed out: “Land is not being let at the moment – we are seeing a constant reduction every year of more than a hundred tenancies.” Fellow member Mike Russell put it like this; “Will this discourage people from letting land? I think it will. But that won’t stop me from voting for the amendments because it proves the current system is broken. We need a fair and equitable system of letting land and we don’t have it because of our history.
“This proposal is not radical or Armageddon – it’s very modest. Landowners should recognise that change is overdue and the rights of property cannot trump human rights.”
Amen to that.
Crucial amendments over the last few weeks mean the Land Reform Bill is a feistier beast than it would otherwise have been and much of that’s down to public pressure. The main demands of the Our Land campaign have been met on transparency, tenant farmers’ rights and ending the rates exemption on vacant and derelict land. If the Government doesn’t accept his proposals Patrick Harvie will likely reintroduce them at the final debate stage.
According to OurLand co-founder and Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine: “Land Tax will be the new battleground. A new majority SNP government will find it hard to ignore party members and simply revert to the tried and failed council tax.”
Doubtless landowners will have one last publicity push before the final land-reform debate in March – but so too will land-reform campaigners. And though progress looks almost certain before May, the second Our Land campaign will kick off again on the Glorious Twelfth, this and every year until Scottish land is finally affordable, available and diversely owned.