[UPDATE 30 May 2013 This blog is an edited version of the one published yesterday (pdf copy here) in which I incorrectly argued that there was only one review promised in the SNP manifesto. There were in fact two as explained below. However, this fact does not change the substance of my argument. Why are farm tenancies being removed from the scope of land reform to be dealt with on their own?]

Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment for the past six years, told a conference yesterday that “the future of land tenure is one of the biggest issues facing the future development of rural Scotland“. Here is his speech in full. He was speaking at a National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) seminar entitled A Vision for Land Tenure: 2020. (1)

In his speech he announced a new review of farm tenancy legislation.

Now this is interesting because the Land Reform Review Group (LRRG) has been given the task of coming up with radical proposals to take forward land reform but, in its Interim Report published last week, it said that it would be taking no further interest in land tenure as it affected Scotland’s tenant farmers (see my previous post for a fuller discussion). This was a shock to all those who had submitted evidence on the topic and particularly to tenant farmers some of whom, as the report noted, were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlord hear they were expressing these views in public.” They thus (mistakenly as it happens) placed some faith in this independent review of land reform to address their concerns. Yesterday, Mr Lochhead announced a separate review of agricultural tenancies.

All of which is rather confusing. The rationale for a separate review was that two separate reviews were promised in the SNP election manifesto in 2011. The relevant part of Lochhead’s speech is as follows.

11. This event is very timely, because we are at an important stage of the government’s work in this area.

12. That work includes two separate reviews, as set out in our election manifesto back in 2011.

13. The first review is the one being run by the Land Reform Review Group, who recently published their interim report.

14. That report set out a range of areas to be investigated more fully during the next phase. The group’s intention is to collect more evidence, by speaking to   those involved at the heart of those issues, before presenting recommendations to the Scottish Government.

15. Meanwhile, the government has also been committed to a separate review of farm tenancy legislation.

He then continues,

22. However there’s one thing I can make clear even today.

23. We were always committed to two separate reviews, and now the Land Reform Review Group has decided to focus on other issues for the remainder of their work.

24. So I want to confirm today that all the issues on farm tenancies raised during the Land Reform Review Group’s work will not be lost. They will be carried forward and looked at very carefully in the farm tenancies review.

I have read the SNP election manifesto carefully and the topic is covered on page 39. It states that,

We will amend the Agricultural Holdings Act to support tenant farmers and will work to encourage new entrants. We also believe that when a farm business is being passed from one generation to the next it should be easier for the successor to build a home on the farm where required.”

So no mention of a review there – simply a clear commitment to amend the legislation which most Governments do by holding a consultation, drafting legislation and introducing a Bill to Parliament.

On the same page, under the heading “Land Reform” it states that,

We believe it is time for a review of Scotland’s land reform legislation. For example, we believe the current period for three months for communities to take advantage of their right of first purchase is too short, and we would wish to see it extended to six months. We will establish a Land Reform Review Group to advise on this and other improvements which we will legislate on over the course of the next five years.”

Scotland’s land reform legislation is the body of statute that emerged from the work of the Land Reform Policy Group chaired by Lord Sewel from 1997-1999. it is all laid out on the Scottish Government’s website and it includes the question of agricultural holdings legislation which also formed an explicit part of the remit of the LRRG (Annex A here). The task of the LRRG is to “review Scotland’s land reform legislation“.

However, the SNP also published a farming manifesto which states that.

We will work with the sector to increase the amount of land available for rent and bring in the legislative changes already proposed and review the effectiveness of the amended act within 18 months.”

The legislative changes referred are now included in the Agricultural Holdings (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2012 which received Royal Assent on 12 July 2012. The review promised in the farming manifesto is only of this amended Act and does not address the many issues tenant farmers raised with the Land Reform Review Group.

All of which gives rise to a number of questions.

Given that the LRRG has dropped the issue, will the remit of this second review be broadened out beyond a simple review of the effectiveness of the 2012 Act?

Why exactly has the LRRG dropped this topic from the mainstream of land reform?

Why, if farm tenancies were indeed “always” to be the subject of a separate review, was this not made clear at the beginning of the LRRG process?

Why, if farm tenancies were “always” to be the subject of a separate review, were tenants led to believe that the LRRG would be considering these issues, were encouraged to provide evidence and indeed were involved in face to face meetings in the field?

Did Scottish Ministers exert any influence over the LRRG to drop any further consideration of farm tenancies?

Land reform is an integrated programme of work designed to do four things.

1.reform land tenure

2.redistribute land

3. provide a fiscal framework for land & property

4. establish appropriate governance arrangements for land relations

That, more or less, is what the Land Reform Policy Group did in 1977-1999.

Why is the Scottish Government messing around with this issue and passing one of the most pressing land reform issues to another as yet unknown review process to be announced “after the summer break“?

What on earth is going on?

 

(1) two of the presentations given at the seminar are available – Phil Thomas, Chair of Tenant Farming Form and Clive Phillips of Brodies, Solicitors.

UPDATE 30 MAY 2013 2115hrs

The Chair of the LRRG gave a speech to the AGM of Scottish Land and Estates on Tuesday 21 May. It was given from notes and no written speech was published but I understand that she said that the farm tenancy issues was dropped due to “timescales and lack of specialist knowledge”.

The timescale of the LRRG from July 2012 to April 2014 is a generous 20 months. Members & advisers were appointed by Scottish Ministers who presumably were fully aware of what specialist knowledge the members and advisers have. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that the lack of specialist knowledge was by design not accident. The Scottish Government press release of 24 July 2013 states clearly that advisers would be appointed “with expertise in areas such as property and land issues, economics, legal issues, community-led organisations, landownership, forestry and access“.

This guest blog is reproduced with the kind permission of the Daily Record.

This land is our land.. so let people have their say

Torcuil Crichton 27 May 2013

ON a rare, dry Friday on the Atlantic coast of Lewis the whole community of Bhaltos turned out to dedicate a monument to their shared past and future.

A brilliant stone sculpture, designed by Will MacLean and Marian Leven, commemorates land raids of a century ago and the recent community buyout of the island estate that will open a new door.

Places like Bhaltos, where the people own the land, are living proof that the land reform agenda is alive and matters.

Someone ought to nail to a fence the message that radical land politics can change people’s lives, over a “Yes Scotland” sign. The SNP government’s Land Reform Review Group was meant to re-engage lost momentum for change in a country where the most important resource, the land, is in the hands of the very few.

Their report is a disgrace from beginning to end. Instead of reigniting the debate, it tries to extinguish land reform. On community ownership it recommends some tinkering. On moving seabed rights from the remote Crown Estate Commission to local control, nothing. On tax avoidance, nothing. On absentee landlords, nothing. On land for housing, nothing.

There is a galling betrayal of tenant farmers across Scotland who put faith in the process. Some of their stories about treatment by modern lairds echo the days of Patrick Sellar.

Distinguished land campaigner Andy Wightman says the cause is effectively dead in the water, thanks to this government.

I understand the frustration.

Alex Salmond has squandered a parliamentary majority, which was a real chance to change the face of Scotland.

He threw the opportunity away to pursue independence, which, as he is at pains to assure us, would change “nothing”.

The SNP have talked constantly about getting control of the levers of power. So why don’t ministers give control of the land to the people who live on it in Scotland?

Following yesterday’s Guest Blog by John Bryden, former land reform adviser to the Scottish Office, we are delighted to publish the thoughts of Brian Wilson on the topic. Brian was one of the founders of the West Highland Free Press, a newspaper established in part to expose the iniquities of the land question and whose masthead still carries the slogan borrowed from the Scottish Land League “An Tir, an Canan ‘sna Daoine – The Land, the Language, the People”. Brian was Minister of State in the Scottish Office from 1997-1998 and, within weeks of being appointed had set up the Community Land Unit in Highlands and Islands Enterprise which, together with the Scottish Land Fund, was one of the keys to unlocking the latent demand for community ownership of land in the region. (1)

This Guest Blog reproduces with permission Brian’s column in the West Highland Free Press today

The most useless 52 pages ever committed to print

Brian Wilson, 24 May 2013

When the Land Reform Review Group was established by the Scottish Government last year, I predicted that it would turn out to be a waste of time; an exercise in kicking the whole thing into touch until after the referendum. The timetable was the giveaway.

While that judgment stands, I am now tempted to think of it as a practical joke – a last mocking laugh at those who were still deluded enough to believe that anything as interesting as land reform might feature in a Scotland where radicalism has been replaced by the constitutional obsession.

The interim report of the Group is quite difficult to find even on its own web-site.  I can only put this down to cyber-embarrassment. In the long history of reports about what used to be called the Land Question in Scotland, this must surely be the most useless 52 pages ever committed to print.  If a Question exists, then it has entirely escaped the notice of the authors.

Andy Wightman, the campaigner on land issues who gallantly seeks to keep the flag flying, headed his own assessment of the Group’s report with the indictment: “Land reform withers on the vine of complacency and ignorance”.  I fear he is right. Nothing of value will emerge from the remit that the Land Reform Review Group has taken refuge in.

The group is chaired by Dr Alison Elliott, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who is doubtless  a well-intentioned soul. But she seems to have approached this task with a knowledge base close to zero and the report suggests little sign of having advanced from that starting-point.

There is no trace of historical context and little attempt to define the status quo, in order to understand why there is even an issue to address.  The nearest we get is the recognition that “Scotland has significantly large private landholdings and the discretions of ownership allow a few people to make decisions about large parts of the country’s land resource and also in some cases about the options available to the people who live their lives on it”.

But, having made that statement, there is no attempt to quantify the scale of what it describes, far less offer any indication of doing anything about it. It does not seem to have dawned that there might be a moral, social or economic issue inherent in the fact that Scotland continues to have the most extreme maldistribution of land ownership in Europe. That would be to bring politics into it, and we mustn’t do that.

Some of the passages are laughable in their naivete.  “Large private estates were quick to invite the group to visit,” the report recounts proudly, “and so the group spent time at the Atholl, Moray, Buccleuch and Annandale Estates”.  I wonder if they spent any time investigating the vast, empty acreages to which they were not invited and to which access might have presented rather more of a challenge?

Sadly, it took them five months to communicate what they were doing due to an unexplained delay in hiring public relations consultants. And it appeared to astonish them that they received nearly 500 submissions as opposed to the 100 which might have been more manageable within the proposed timescale.  Gosh! Are there really 500 people interested in this stuff?  Extraordinary!

The report devotes a lot of space to describing matters that it is not going to concern itself with.  The poor old tenant farmers, who had apparently placed quite a lot of hope in the Land Reform Review Group,  probably due to the bogus rhetoric that surrounded its launch, have been given the complete bum’s rush. “This aspect of rural Scotland is clearly problematic and requires sensitive and expert attention,” the Group declares boldly – before running a mile from having anything to do with it.

In a glimmer of recognition that all may not be absolutely perfect in Scotland’s rural idyll, the report notes that some tenants were “fearful of speaking at open meetings, or even of putting their concerns on paper, because of possible recriminations should their landlords hear they were expressing these views in public”.  How awful!  But absolutely nothing to do with Land Reform, you understand. One wonders what has happened to the unfortunate tenants who spoke up!

As Andy Wightman points out, the remit has been narrowed down to the point where it is “not a land reform review group – it is a community ownership review group”.  And that, frankly, is a cop-out. Of course community ownership is an option in certain places and circumstances but in those areas where the grip of landlordism is tightest, it is pure fantasy to suppose that depending upon  the word “community” is going to change anything.

Reading this report, it is difficult not be scathing about its contents because they are so insipid and contain so many cop-outs. But it would be unfair to lay all, or even most of the blame at the door of Dr Elliot, who was certainly not chosen due to any identifiable track record on the imperatives of the land issue. It the people who put her in this position who should really be called to account.  If land reform is a political issue then it must be tackled by politicians, on the basis of conviction.

The last group convened by Government to come up with a land reform agenda was in 1997 and the difference was that we meant it. The group was not chaired by a lay novice but by a Minister, John Sewel, whose day job had been as a land economist.  It did not have three members but ten, all of them with a serious background in the subject.  It had as its principal adviser John Bryden, who had been intensively involved in land use issues for the previous 30 years.

In other words, it was a politically-driven initiative with a clear objective – to come up with a land reform package which could be handed over for the new Scottish Executive to turn into legislation, which is what happened (though even then it was watered down).  But Scottish land reform was always meant to be a process rather than an event and, since then, there has been nothing – until the setting up of this Group which has little expertise and no political direction.

It does seem remarkable that there appears to be no politician in the current Scottish Government with the remotest interest in land reform as a cause.  The interim report must be –  so many words in the past and so little action in the present.

NOTES

(1) See page 259 (first edition) 350 (2013 edition) of The Poor Had No Lawyers for the details of his which happened.