Time to Call the Landowners Bluff
On Wednesday, 3rd February, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ provided Scottish landowners with a public platform under the headline ‘Eminent lairds warn SNP land reforms may stop farm lets’, in which estates owned by major landowners like the Duke of Buccleuch and the Earl of Seafield lead warnings that allowing tenant farmers with no successors to sell on their secure tenancies would backfire and lead to legal challenges in the courts.
This petulant display by Landowners in the Scottish Parliament was no surprise. The warning that they ‘may stop letting land out long-term to tenants’ should be treated as the empty threat it obviously is. Landowners stopped letting land on long leases many years ago. The most common form of lease now is for contract farming the land for less than a year at a time to avoid the risk of creating a secure tenancy. A few limited-duration, 10-year tenancies have been formed for newcomers to farming but they look suspiciously like publicity stunts. The cry of despair over the proposal to allow a secure tenant to pass a tenancy to someone else or allow the landowner to buy out the tenant is another red herring. The formula of paying a tenant 25% of the market price to relinquish a tenancy has been in existence for more than 40 years. The freehold market price of a farm is about twice its price with a secure tenancy so it was common for the landlord and tenant to split the difference so that the landlord gained the option of selling at the freehold price.
The threat of court action because ‘the move [to allow a tenant to pass on a tenancy] would be challenged under European Law” as it represented ‘the confiscation of the property owner’s interest’ should not prevent changes from being made. Landowners are fond of declaring that the ownership of land is a fundamental human right which should be strictly upheld but this is unacceptable because it is unreasonable. It only applies to those of us who own land now. Those who do not own land have no right to own any, so the ‘right to own land’ is unlike other human rights such as the right to practise one’s religion, which is the right of everyone to claim.
The title deeds which landowners, like me, hold should be open to question. Where and when did those deeds originate? Ultimately they were granted by ‘The Divine Right of Kings’ and the land has been taken from its native occupants by violent conquest or fraud or privileged enclosure. I am certain that the Law confirms the right of landowners to own their land but it is a law which is devoid of justice. If the status quo has to be supported because European Law says so then European Law must be changed.
Many long term farm tenancies will continue because wise land owners are content to leave all the work and risks of farming to their tenants. There are more landowners who need their tenants than there are tenants who need their landowners. The history of landowners in the 1930s who dispensed with their tenants in the days before security of tenure was granted should be a salutary lesson. A lot of land was eventually offered to tenants free of rent until it was restored to productive use.