Comment Column by David Johnstone as published in the Press & Journal on 7 March 2015:
It was a review that took 18 months from inception to delivery, but the focus has now shifted to what agricultural holdings legislation will bring – and what will happen before any bill is passed.
Recent weeks have seen various scenarios being played out in the media, with suggestions that relationships between landlords and tenants will be under strain until new legislation is introduced, and that landlords will take “evasive action” in advance of changes to the law.
Yet in our mind, if these genuine concerns exist – and can be backed up – then it would be for the good of the industry if stakeholders can get round a table immediately and deal with it.
Despite recent criticism of landowners, the fact is that – for some time now – we have been urging all organisations to develop their thinking on the successor to the industry rent review panel and the potential to introduce a temporary ombudsman before legislation comes into force.
There are, however, measures that the industry can make a start on and – if there is goodwill on all sides – progress can be made. It should not be forgotten that what we should all be trying to achieve is the revitalisation of the sector and creating a sound platform for the next generation of farmers.
The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association has said that it is concerned that landlords may take evasive action prior to any legislation. The STFA needs to spell out what it means by that and we believe the sector would be better served at this stage by a less adversarial and more evidence-based approach.
The STFA continues to suggest that there are tenants being treated unfairly by landlords. The Scottish Government’s own survey into landlord-tenant relationships shows the overwhelming majority, around 80%, were satisfactory.
If it is the case that there are examples where tenants are being treated unfairly we want to root out the problem but the STFA needs to produce evidence of this and we urge them in the strongest possible terms to do that.
The review group carried out a long and inclusive exercise. There is an obligation on all of us to work constructively to find practical ways to improve on what we have today. There are recommendations in the review group report that we cannot support and will have a serious impact on property rights. However, we will make our case on these to government and parliamentarians at the appropriate time, with the best outcome for tenant farming uppermost in our considerations.
The majority of members of Scottish Land & Estates operate their own farming businesses and are committed to ensuring a vibrant future for tenant farming because letting farms is a core part of their business activity. It will surely help parliamentarians devise legislation in a considered way if the industry is seen to be working together.