The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association issued the following media release today.
WITHOUT ACTION, FARM EVICTIONS WILL BECOME SCOTLAND’S SHAME
The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association has welcomed the focus given to land and tenancy reform at last week’s SNP conference and the clear signal from SNP grassroots support for strengthening the land reform proposals in the current bill. The delegate’s call followed a powerful documentary on Channel 4 TV which highlighted what are seen as some of the worst areas of bad land and estate management in Scotland.
The conference also heard pleas to halt the impending eviction of tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart whose tenancy on Colstoun Mains in East Lothian is due to come to an end in a few short weeks. Andrew Stoddart, who also spoke at a fringe event, is the first of the Salvesen Riddell tenants to be forced to quit their farms following the Remedial Order passed by the Scottish Parliament last year.
Commenting on the grassroots “rebellion” at the SNP conference, STFA Chairman Christopher Nicholson said: “STFA has been concerned that the government may have been wilting in the face of intense pressure from landed interests, intent on weakening what can only be seen as an already diluted bill. We hope that this message from the conference will strengthen the government’s resolve to deliver more radical and much needed reforms to create fairer conditions for tenant farmers, stimulating investment on agriculture, greater access to land and encouraging opportunities for new entrants.”
STFA has also become appalled at the recent treatment of tenant farmers affected by the Salvesen Riddell Remedial Order, including Andrew Stoddart who faces imminent eviction without having had the opportunity to take part in the government’s mediation process or be considered for any recompense which should be due from the government following the implementation of the Remedial Order.
STFA Director, Angus McCall who has been involved in the Salvesen Riddell debacle for the last few years said: “This whole episode has become Scotland’s shame which has seen the victims of a legal error hung out to dry by uncaring government lawyers and an inflexible government process.
“This tragic episode stemmed from legislation passed in 2003 which was proved to be defective. The UK Supreme Court then instructed the Scottish parliament to remedy the situation and, as a consequence, 8 families will lose their farms and livelihoods. However, rather than seeking to fulfil commitments made by government to parliament and the industry, government lawyers are abdicating all responsibility and liability and refusing point blank to consider any compensation package for the affected tenants. These tenants are now faced with a lengthy and expensive court battle to exert their rights.
“STFA has already written, and is writing again to the First Minister, Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, the RACCE committee and MSPs to get the matter resolved and allow these tenants and their families to move their lives on, but all to no avail. Ministers, MSPs and some officials have expressed a willingness to help, but seem to be held to ransom by lawyers.
“We all appreciate that this is a complex situation, but the rulers of this country must accept a moral responsibility for the damage done though the actions of a previous government to these families and move without further delay to find a way towards an equitable settlement rather than forcing them into a long drawn out, expensive and life sapping legal battle. This has been devastating for all concerned and, after 18 months of prevarication, the tenants’ lives are still on hold and they are no further on in knowing their future.
“This affair has been a well-kept secret, but it must be time for the Scottish people to wake up and realise what is going on and allow common decency and a sense of fair play to prevail and put an end to this sorry affair before any lives are tragically lost as has happened in the past?”
Guest Blog by Morten Nielsen, Aarhus University, Denmark (1)
Associate professor Morten Nielsen is a Danish anthropologist currently in the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University. Based on empirical research carried out in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the UK, his research focuses on land use, house-building and property rights in both urban and rural areas. He is currently undertaking an in-depth study of land relations and property rights among tenant farmers on Islay.
“This is the Scottish Government. Is this Dr. Morten Nielsen?”
I had just come off the Islay ferry and was heading for Inveraray when my phone rang and an energetic woman, who was apparently the living embodiment of the Scottish Government, wanted to know if she was, in fact, speaking with me. I immediately assumed that I had done something wrong. Having spent more than two months doing ethnographic fieldwork among tenant farmers on Islay, my initial thought was that I had probably forgotten to fill out some research permit and now my increasing absent-mindedness had finally backfired.
Much to my surprise, however, the polite state official was not at all trying to expose my academic flaws but, rather, wanted to discuss my on-going research about agricultural tenancies and property rights on Islay. In order to realise comprehensive land reforms in Scotland, she told me, information was badly needed and my research could potentially provide insights into the intricacies of negotiating land rights in the Highlands and Islands. Having an overall interest in the dissemination of qualitative research, I immediately agreed to meet with the polite embodiment of the Scottish Government. As we could not find an available date for us to meet up on Islay, the state official agreed to visit me in Crail, Fife a few weeks later, on a Saturday, when I was visiting some friends on my way back to Denmark.
To Scottish readers, this vignette might not constitute anything out of the ordinary: a foreign researcher being approached by a state official interested in discussing key findings on issues that are high on the political agenda. However, having carried out research on land and property rights in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa since 2000, I can firmly say that this is the first time ever that I have been contacted personally by a state official interested in the findings from a very short empirical investigation and, moreover, one who was prepared to meet up on a day off.
In both regions where I have previously worked, access to officials at different levels has been paramount to my research but the initiative for making contact has always been mine. The obvious question to ask was therefore why did she feel the urge to contact me apparently out of the blue? In order to respond to this question, we need to discard the tempting but unfortunately unlikely possibility that she was in awe of my research findings. At the time of our telephone conversation I had carried out fieldwork for less than two months and had as yet published nothing in academic journals or in more accessible public media. The likely response to the puzzling question is therefore quite banal. It wasn’t that I was the best of all the scientists doing research ‘on the ground’; rather, I was the only researcher doing research ‘on the ground’!
In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, research into property rights and access to agricultural land is heavily supported and funded by external stakeholders, such as, for example, the UK Government. Hence, whenever I do ethnographic research in sub-Saharan Africa, I am certain to meet several of my colleagues doing research on exactly the same issues as myself. In Scotland, however, the situation is markedly different. Since I started doing research, I have come across very few colleagues doing what I do (which is to try to understand what people do ‘on the ground’ when, for example, farmers attempt to acquire secure access to tenanted land). To be more precise, I have met none!
Hence, although my conversation with the Scottish state official paved the way for disseminating findings from my research project to relevant stakeholders, it also made apparent a disturbing problem that slows down the realisation of wide-ranging land reforms. The on-going discussion about land and property rights in Scotland is based on very little knowledge about what actually goes on ‘on the ground’ regarding such crucial questions as, for example, how do negotiations between land owner and land tenant take place?; how are rent reviews actually settled?; how do conflicts among farmers and between tenants and land owners erupt and how are they settled?; why do so few tenants use the land court to settle land disputes? The list goes on…
Let me try to flesh out this puzzling predicament a bit further by turning to some of the very interesting issues raised by the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) in its recently published Interim Report. (2) Initially, it is noted with lucid honesty that,
“The first step in any meaningful strategy of land reform must be the creation of data on ownership and land values which is comprehensive and accessible. Regrettably Scotland lags behind most comparable European countries in providing such data”
When discussing ownership of vacant land in Scotland, the disturbing lack of information is further emphasized. According to Professor Adams, University of Glasgow,
“…local authorities have no idea who owns 12% of the vacant and derelict land in Scotland”
One consequence being that,
“…too often communities are left guessing who owns the land that they live, work and socialise in”.
Taking SAC’s insights as an apt example of an overall problem then, given the lack of information, stakeholders involved in the ongoing process of trying to improve the existing legislation on land and property rights are often in the dark about what happens ‘on the ground’.
What are then the consequences of this worrying lack of information? Why is it that information about what goes on ‘on the ground’ is so crucial for the successful realization of ambitious land reforms? As an anthropologist having working on these issues for the last 14 years, I do believe that it is only through careful examination of how land is actually appropriated, negotiated and distributed that new and potentially revolutionary mechanisms of land distribution can be envisaged and put into action. Let me briefly sketch out only a few areas of concern that I have identified through my three months of fieldwork among farmers in Islay:
The need for pragmatic and immediate forms of arbitration. Currently, the only workable mechanism for arbitration is the land court. To many farmers, it is too costly and it is considered as unlikely to reach a viable and positive outcome. Hence, a kind of ‘middle ground’ is needed.
The need for third parties when negotiating rent reviews. The recurrent rent reviews constitute critical and often decisive moments that significantly affect or even condition the relationship between landowners (through factors) and tenants. To many farmers, the need for maintaining a workable relationship with the factor will often prevent them from claiming legitimate rights.
The need for transparency when calculating the value of tenanted land. My research indicates that there are no objective standards by which landowners determine the value of tenanted land (e.g. an acre of arable land might vary between different comparable farms).
This is only a very cursory and superficial outline of a few of the many issues that I have discussed with farmers on Islay. Still, as is probably clear by now, I will claim that it is only through detailed examinations of happens ‘on the ground’ that such crucial insights might be identified and subsequently serve as a basis for establishing new mechanisms for a more just system of land distribution.
Let me conclude with an example of what such valuable insights might be used for. During the 1990s, the Mozambican government in collaboration with donors and local and international interest groups managed to involve huge sections of the Mozambican population in widespread debates on the need for a new and democratic land law. Through massive investments, large-scale research projects and ongoing public debates, a new Land Law was finally formulated that was (and still is) the most progressive piece of legislation on land and property rights in sub-Saharan Africa. (3) Today, it is widely acknowledged by all stakeholders involved in the process that the radical and positive achievements could never have been reached if it had not been for the continuous production of information about how Mozambican land was actually appropriated, negotiated and distributed.
In this light, the debate on land and property rights in Scotland is that of a developing third world country that can one day hope to reach the progressive level of developed countries, such as Mozambique.
Ruth works for Community Land Scotland although she writes here in a personal capacity. During the summer of 2009, she spent six weeks volunteering at the Tent of Nations farm in the West Bank, Palestine.
“We refuse to be enemies” is the sentiment upon which the Tent of Nations project in Palestine is built. Painted on a stone which greets every visitor to the Nassar family farm, where the project is based, the phrase encaptures the deep sense of humanity, resolution and faith which emanates from the 100 acres of land and the family who own it.
At 8am on Monday 19th May 2014, Israeli Defense Force (IDF) bulldozers arrived unannounced – presumably rolling past the Nassar’s defiant welcoming statement – and proceeded to destroy between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot trees, apple trees and grape vines in the lower valley of the farm.
Resting on a hill six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank), the Nassar family hold registration papers for this land dating back to the Ottoman Empire. For over 20 years now, the family have been fighting a legal battle to prove their ownership of the land. For over 20 years they have been challenged by knock-backs, obstacles and violent provocations. The attack at the beginning of last week comes while their latest case for proving ownership has been in the Israeli Military/Civil Courts since February 2013.
Image: The valley before and after the bulldozers arrived.
In 2001 the Nassars set up the Tent of Nations peace project on their farm; a project committed to building intercultural cooperation and understanding; to promoting dialogue and non-violence and to highlighting the connection between people and land. As a volunteer in 2009 (planting and harvesting many of the trees now destroyed), I was struck by the family’s steadfast resolve to remain on their farm despite the pressure to have it evacuated and claimed as Israeli State Land. I noted in a blog during my time there the “shuwe, shuwe” (“slowly, slowly”) attitude to the Nassar’s work; commenting that it “sums up their calm, thoughtful and sustained approach to dealing with an intense and emotional situation.” Such an approach couldn’t be more necessary now as they cope with this latest act of oppression; as ever – they are rising to the occasion with dignity and hope.
In addition to the destruction of the trees, the terraced land on which the trees were planted was also destroyed and left in a state of rubble which cannot currently be re-planted. Having generated income from the fruit of the mature trees, the family are faced with an attack on their livelihood as well as their property. As advised by their lawyer, the Nassars are now appealing for compensation; critically, they are also appealing to have the demolition orders which remain on the tents, compost toilets & other structures on the farm removed. They have asked for international awareness to be raised and for the international community to support their case and to understand that the injustices they face are representative of the oppression faced by the wider Palestinian population.
If you’d like to take action to support the Nassar family and hold the Israeli Military and Government to account for its actions, please write to your MP using this standard letter – doc and rtf.
Image: The unassuming entrance to the HQ of the UK’s largest farm
The largest farm in the UK is popularly understood to be that owned by the Co-operative Group which extends to 17,808 acres across the country and is currently up for sale. However, figures released by the Scottish Government show that, in fact a north-east farmer, Frank A Smart is now far and away the largest farmer in the whole of the UK. In 2013, Mr Smart was farming 87,423 acres of land across Scotland – almost five times more than the Co-operative Group. For his efforts, he was paid £3,226,492 by the Scottish Government. His company’s accounts record a profit of £552,655 for the year ending 30 September 2012.
Mr Smart is the King of the Slipper Farmers. By buying “entitlements” to farm subsidies of thousands of pounds per hectare and claiming these on the basis of bogs and mountains rented at around £5 per acre – “naked acres”, he has abused the system of farm subsidies and become a millionaire.
According to the farming journalist Andrew Arbuckle, slipper farming has been responsible for between £50 – £100 million of payments each year – almost 20% of the total amount of subsidy paid to Scottish agriculture. Some of Scotland’s leading charities joined in the scam – here is the National Trust for Scotland trying to explain away its own involvement in buying entitlements and leasing naked acres.
The new system of farm subsidies to be introduced in 2015 is meant to bring an end to slipper-farming by ensuring that all farmers are “active”. The definition of this is yet to be finalised, however, and it is far from clear whether this will be effective in eliminating this abuse. Matters are further complicated by uncertainty over whether the new system will be introduced in 2015 as a fresh start or whether it will be phased in over a number of years. The latter approach may well allow slipper farmers like Frank Smart to continue receiving millions of pounds per year for doing probably very little at all. Moreover, it would be a slap in the face to those many farmers across Scotland for whom, because the current system was designed to benefit those farming in 2003, have been running their businesses with no subsidy whatsoever
Last week, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee wrote to Richard Lochhead and argued that an immediate move to the new system may have a “negative impact on Scotland’s agriculture sector which could have serious and economic and social impacts.” It argues this position on the ludicrous proposition that “some businesses”, despite having known for years that this change was going to happen, “may not be prepared”. (page 6 of the letter & Committee Inquiry page).
Sorry – but if these businesses (and, coincidentally, they are ones that seem to dominate the concerns of the National Farmers Union of Scotland) are not prepared, then that’s tough. Why should public money be paid out to to anyone on the basis of what they were given a decade ago and who has failed to prepare for change?
Apart from Scotland’s specialised farming press and a programme on Panorama broadcast in March 2012, the mainstream media has not paid much attention to this issue. One recent exception, interestingly is the New York Times which carried a story titled “In Scotland, Working both the Land and a Loophole” by Stephen Castle on 31 March 2014.
Meanwhile, the concerns of the Committee and of the Scottish Government will be evidenced by whether Mr Smart continues to receive millions of pounds of public money that should, instead, be supporting Scotland’s far more deserving active and enterprising farm businesses.
My previous blog on Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farming subsidies attracted a bit of interest in The Herald today and a number of people have been in touch to ask what can be done to ensure a fair distribution of EU farming subsidies. This question of course is exercising Richard Lochhead as he finalises the details of the subsidy system that will kick in in 2015 and run until 2020. There are a number of competing interests to be squared and his task is unenviable.
I have blogged in the past about “capping the CAP” here, here and here. Capping involves placing a ceiling or cap on the amount of subsidy given to any one farming business. The European Parliament voted that capping be mandatory but the Council of Minsters took the view that it should be left to Member States to decide for themselves and that means, in the UK, that the devolved administrations have complete discretion as to if and how they apply such a measure.
During negotiations of the CAP, the UK and Scottish Governments were opposed to a cap but back in 2011, Richard Lochhead admitted that “the public did not like the idea of very big payments going to individual farm businesses and many of the farmers he had spoken to across Scotland had acknowledged that.”
I argued in February 2013 that existing payments were very unevenly distributed. The graph below shows the total for 2011 (the distribution for 2013 is very similar).
If payments were capped at £100,000 per farm business, then this would, in 2011, have enabled the redistribution of £53.9 million paid to 813 farmers.
On the basis of the 2013 data, over two-thirds of the total direct payments went to 21% of the recipients (3962 farm businesses). A total of 642 farm businesses received payments of over £100,000 and capping the basic payments at this level would recover £66.2 million per year for redistribution.
No farm business needs a subsidy of more than £100,000 or, if it does, it does not deserve to be in business. I would, in fact place the cap much lower – at £50,000. The Scottish Government consultation noted (page 13) that,
If we wish we can decide that there should be a bigger reduction on Basic Payments than the 5% which is required by Europe, including a total cap on the size of future Basic Payments. Reducing the potential size of future payments in this way might also help tackle slipper farming where entitlements to high value SFPs have been transferred and are currently being claimed on rough grazing. Imposing higher levels of degressive reduction or even a total cap on the size of future Basic Payments could be one way to limit the future size of payments to slipper farmers who meet any minimum activity requirement. Without a tool such as this, these claimants could continue to claim a relatively large share of future support until payments become fully area-based. (my emphasis)
Consultees were invited to express a preference for one of four options but none included a total cap of less than €500,000.
Most people understand the concept of a cap and, whilst the the £26,000 per year benefits cap is controversial because it relates to some of the poorest members of society, the same cannot be said, generally speaking, of farmers. There are some poor farmers of course. There are many who work long hours for poor rewards. There may well be some who rely on benefits to feed their family. But this need does not extend to Sheik bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Earl of Moray or Viscount Cowdray.(1)
There is no justification for paying any farm business, including (as the previous blog noted) large landowners, much more than twice the cap on benefits received by the poorest in society. Furthermore, the current system of subsidies is contributing to a growing concentration of ownership and occupancy of land when the Scottish Government’s land reform policy is to see more diversity and have many more people owning land. Excessive subsidy (indeed any subsidy) also pushes up the price of land. Subsidies, in general are a bad policy but we are stuck with them.
£50,000 a year. What do you think?
(1) See previous blog to download Excel file of 2013 recipients of farm subsidies.
Image: Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wins the 2012 St James’ Palace Stakes, Royal Ascot
It’s hard to imagine the Government devising a new system of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Housing Benefit where the claimant is told they that their entitlement to such payments is just about to quadruple whether they like it or not. Indeed, with the total benefits cap set at £26,000 per year, the trend is in the opposite direction. It has long eluded me why, when the poorest in society suffer cuts and caps, some of the wealthiest (like the individual pictured above) not only appear to suffer no such pain, but are rewarded with largesse.
I met a tenant farmer recently who told me that under the existing system of farming subsidies he receives £18,000 per year. That’s a fairly generous allocation. But under current proposals for the new system (to be introduced in 2015) he will receive £80,000. “I don’t need it”, he told me. He is not particularly wealthy but he doesn’t need the money. So why does it look likely that he will get it?
The existing system of farm subsidies is coming to an end in December 2015 and the Scottish Government is currently finalising the details of the new system that will take its place and run until 2020. The existing (historic) system awarded subsidy (single farm payments – SFP) to farmers on the basis of what they received in 2000-2002. This is rather like paying tax this year on the basis of what you earned 14 years ago.
Some farmers “gamed” the system by increasing their farming activity in those years and thus have done very well out of it over the past decade. Others have bought “entitlements” to subsidy from farmers who, for example, retire from farming, and have “attached” those “entitlements” to poor quality land. They rent this land very cheaply and have thus been paid substantial sums of public money for doing nothing. They are the slipper farmers (so-called because they sit in front of the fire in their slippers being paid for doing nothing). Young farmers who entered farming over the past ten years have typically received no subsidy because the Scottish Executive back in 2003 conveniently omitted to make any allowance for them.
From next year, a new Basic Payments System (BPS) of farming subsidies will be introduced on the basis of a straightforward fixed payment per hectare of land farmed. The current proposal is that this payment should be made over two separate “regions” of land – €20-25 for rough grazing land and €200-€250 for better quality land. This means that the more land you own or rent, the more subsidy you will receive. This explains the pleasant dilemma faced by my farming friend above.
So, will the new system eliminate slipper farmers, support new entrants and direct subsidy where it is most needed? There will be support for new entrants although how much and how soon remains to be seen. But on the first and third points the jury is still out.
Scottish farmers do well out of the CAP – they receive the second highest average payments in the EU (€31,955). But that figure masks a few who do very well and the great majority who receive much less. In the latest data for 2013, the recipient of the largest payment was the King of the slipper farmers, Frank A Smart who was awarded the tidy sum of £3,226,492 for 35,379ha of land that he “farmed”. (1)
That’s right – over three million pounds.
The recipient of the least got £0.22.
Of the £439.8 million handed out in 2013, 45% (£198 million) went to the top 10% of farmers and the top third received over 81% of the total pot. This distribution is thanks to the system of historic payments and the scandal of slipper farming which, according to the farming journalist Andrew Arbuckle, has been responsible for between £50 – £100 million of payments each year – almost 20% of the total amount of subsidy paid to Scottish agriculture. His article is worth a read. So will the new system be any fairer? That depends on a number of factors including how much land is eligible for the BPS and how the new system is phased in. And this is where things get interesting.
Under the old scheme, some owners of very large tracts of land undertook very little farming and so have received relatively small payments. But under the new scheme their estates are all eligible for the basic payment. In 2013, there were 4,480,561 hectares against which subsidy claims were made. However, there are a total of 5,744,610 hectares of land registered and eligible for subsidy – an additional 1,264,049 hectares. The Scottish Government intends, under EU rules, to restrict the land that can trigger payments by applying an “active farmer” test. It is unclear what this will mean in practice and in any event, it is not likely to be difficult to hire a shepherd and run a few sheep over the hills and qualify for subsidy.
Image: Extract from Scottish Government’s IACS Field Boundary dataset for Highland and Aberdeenshire
Smech Properties Ltd. for example, is a company registered in Guernsey and owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the King of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (pictured above). It owns the Killilan, Inverinate, West Benula and Glomach Estate in Wester Ross which has 21,424 ha of eligible land registered, received £26,406 in 2013 and could be eligible for £439,192 paid straight to a tax haven every year until 2020.
The Duke of Westminster owns 37,303 hectares of eligible land and could be eligible for £764,712 of public assistance for each of the next six years.
Braulen and Glenavon Estate, owned by a company in Grand Cayman (beneficial owner unknown) consists of 26,632 hectares of land potentially eligible for £545,956 of state handouts for doing next to nothing.
The Duke of Roxburgh received £204,374 in 2013 and his 4637 of claimed hectares would be eligible for £950,585 per year over the next six years
Letterewe Estate is owned by a company in the Dutch Antilles and could be eligible for £372,280 every year until 2020.
Even the Queen could claim over half a million pounds over the 25,000 hectares of Balmoral Estate.
In addition, there is a distinct possibility that, instead of the new system being introduced in 2015, it will be phased in over the next six years. And that would mean that Frank Smart (and the rest of Scotland’s slipper farmers) would continue to receive a substantial proportion of his £3,226,492 until 2020 for doing next to nothing.
The existing system of farm subsidies has been extensively abused. The new system must not be. And that is why I and others will be paying close attention to whether Sheik Mohammed is going to be allowed to pretend that he is a farmer and whether Frank Smart continues to get given millions of pounds for doing next to nothing.
(1) The matrix files for 2012 and 2013 in Microsoft Excel format
Name of the claimant for legal persons only. Natural persons names are redacted. See here for details.
Postcode District where the claimant’s business is registered.
2013 SFPS Payment – the sum in Euros (all sums been converted to £ for this blog)
Ha Paid is hectares over which payment was claimed
Person Type – Natural or Legal
UPDATE 7 May
Figures in the original blog for 2013 payments were expressed in Pounds Sterling when they were in fact Euros (this includes payment made in 2013 to Frank A Smart). All now been corrected. This does not affect the projected sums which were converted already.
On 22 January, the Scottish Government published an interesting map showing the density of tenanted agricultural land per parish (1162kb pdf here). What struck me about the map was the apparent coincidence of those parishes with >75% of the land tenanted with the locations of Scotland’s largest landed estates. So I produced another map, overlaying the ownership boundaries with the parishes and the coincidence is real. What this maps shows is that the pattern of farm tenancies is a product of the pattern of private landownership and has nothing to do with agricultural conditions. Recent reports in the press have claimed that the right to buy being pursued by tenant farmers is a “minority quest”. There is more than one minority, however.
A report was published today by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) entitled Family Estates and Rural Resiliance. It contains the findings from a series of 23 interviews with landowners of so-called “family estates”. The report contains a few interesting observations but adds little to our state of knowledge about landownership in Scotland.
First of all is the problem of definitions. What is a “family estate”? The report does not say. One presumes it is an estate owned by a whole family but I know of none that meet this definition. The report contains no analysis of whether estates are owned by companies, trusts, individuals or other legal entities. Such structures are important not least because they often constrain precisely who in the “family” is the owner – often this may be a son or grandchildren. But the most important information that is missing is any analysis of gender. Are these estates owned by men or women in the family and what stake do children have? Given the long history of primogeniture and male landowners, this missing gender dimension makes it difficult to understand precisely whose voice is doing the talking and on what basis.
Another problem is that the research in so far as it examines the role played by “family estates” in their wider community, only interviews the landowners and not the wider community. It would have been interesting to see whether the opinions of the interviewees are shared by the community with which most of them seem so enthusiastic to embrace.
For example (and this is purely anecdotal of course), I received this email today from somebody who is dealing with a well-known “family estate” I guess you might call it.
“they have a huge influence on life in this area and I personally have noticed a fundamental change in the last 10 years or so where they have gone from being generally a well thought of and benevolant influence in the community to the complete opposite where now they are obstructive, disliked and untrustworthy. You will be hard pushed to find someone who has a good word to say about them.”
The most obvious problem with this piece of work, however is the sample. The findings are based upon interviews with only 23 landowners. That is a very small sample but there are two more serious flaws.
The sample is derived solely from the membership of Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) which immediately biases the sample towards those who choose for whatever reason to join this organisation. The most serious flaw, however, is the fact that Scottish Land and Estates had the final say selecting the 23 owners. SRUC initially selected random estates using codes from an anonymised database provided by SLE. Once selected, the codes were sent to SLE. In the words of the report, SLE “then checked that the ones we had selected were resident family estates. if not, we then re-selected, again from the anonymised database“.
This means that SLE had the opportunity of selecting those data subjects which would show “family estates” in the best light. Whether it did or not I cannot say and neither can the researchers – and that is the fundamental flaw in the research design. We cannot therefore trust that the sample is even representative of “family estates” who are members of SLE (a problem exacerbated by SLE who, it appears, used their own unpublished definition of a “family estate”).
Moreover, knowing the identity of the subjects means that SLE had the opportunity to speak to them in advance of the research. Whether it did or not I cannot say and neither can the researchers.
In a tweet today, SLE Chief Executive revealed the flawed premise upon which much of their argument rests. I will leave you to spot it.
This kind of design flaw has happened before with research undertaken by the Scottish Agricultural College, the predecessor to SRUC. Nine years ago, in a study of nine estates, it was revealed that the subjects were chosen by the sponsor of the research – the Scottish Estates Business Group – my critique of the time is here).
The next report will look at the role played by “charity” landowners. I trust that SRUC will adopt a clear definition and it would be very interesting to see whether they include the Applecross Trust and Mount Stuart Trust in their sample.
This report is based on a seriously flawed sample methodology and cannot be trusted. It tells us little beyond the opinions of 23 individuals whose authority even to speak on behalf of their “family” is never explained. No attempt is made to validate the views and opinions of the 23 interviewees by seeking the views of others with whom they engage. The research amounts to little more than a series of chats with individuals who have a vested interest in findings that can be presented, interpreted and promoted in a positive light.
In the acknowledgements, the author writes, “I would like to thank the 23 interviewees for their time in sharing their views with me“. That about sums up the research.
But please don’t take my word for it. Read it and make up your own mind.
Should tenant farmers in Scotland be given the legal right to convert their tenancies into ownership of the farm that they and their descendants have occupied and worked in some cases for over a century? It’s a question that will be at the centre of a review of agricultural tenancies soon to be announced by the Scottish Government. It is a question that has already been answered in the affirmative for individual crofters (Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 1976), for leaseholders of residential property in England and Wales (dating back to Leasehold Reform Act 1967), for crofting communities (Part 3 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003), and for long leaseholders in Scotland (Long Leases (Scotland) Act 2012).
The issue was last debated in 2003 during the passage of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003. This act provides secure tenants with a qualified right to buy their farm if and when it is put up for sale buy its owner. Secure tenancies (or 1991 tenancies – so-called after a consolidating Act in 1991) are the traditional form of agricultural tenancy many of which have been in place for well over a century. The Act also introduced new short tenancies for specified durations of 5 years (short limited duration tenancies) and 10 years (limited duration tenancies) – let’s call both of these “2003 tenancies”.
On 4 February 2003 during the Committee Stage of the 2003 Act, Fergus Ewing MSP argued that secure tenants should be given an unqualified right to buy at any time. He argued that,
“I find it somewhat ironic that Conservatives who extol the benefits of property ownership want to keep the benefits of property ownership to the few—indeed, the very few—landed estates. The Conservatives do not seem to realise the huge potential that could be unleashed by the creation of more property owners.
“I look forward to hearing what my Conservative friends on the committee have to say about why they do not want many more family farms under ownership in Scotland. Do they not accept that the vehicle of ownership will unleash a spirit of entrepreneurialism that could help to achieve some of the objectives that the Executive propounds in its forward strategy for agriculture?
“The SNP supports the absolute right to buy for secure heritable tenants. We recognise secure heritable tenants as a distinct group of people in Scotland. We do not advocate that those who have short leases should have the right to buy. We have never done so and will never do so, because, in most cases, secure heritable tenants have farmed the land for the whole of their lives, and their fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers did so before them.” (1)
Ewing’s challenge to the Conservatives is interesting. Back in 1946, Anthony Eden, in a speech to the Conservative Party conference had in fact extolled the virtues of just such a property owning democracy.
“We believe that it is desirable to elaborate schemes whereby the private citizen and the returned soldier should be in a position not only to rent a house but to own one.” Conservatives believed, he added, believe “that the tenant farmer should be assisted and encouraged to become an owner-occupier.” (2)
The purpose of this blog, however, is not to visit the arguments for and against an unqualified right to buy for tenant farmers but to refute an assertion made by landowners in opposition to it – an assertion that has been repeated ad nauseum for over 10 years.
The day after Fergus Ewing’s amendment was defeated, Robert Balfour, the chairman of the Scottish Landowners’ Federation task force on land reform, said, “The SLF is glad that common sense has prevailed. An absolute right to buy will not achieve any of the aims of the Bill and will shatter the tenanted sector.”
Many landowners, in evidence to the Land Reform Review Group argued that the threat of a right to buy would be a disaster. Richard Stirling-Aird argued that the right to buy was “probably the biggest deterrent to owners of land to let farms, and the mere threat itself is sufficient to pretty well dry up such supply of farms coming up for let”
Roxburghe Estates claimed that “Any proposal to grant existing tenant farmers the right to buy their farm at any time, rather than, as at present, when a landowner plans to sell, will have a serious impact on the supply of land to let. Confidence in letting land would be destroyed“.
The problem with such prophecies of doom is that there is no rational basis to believe that either
1, the threat of a right to buy should lead to any reduction in the amount of land to be let or,
2. such a right would, if it were introduced, reduce the amount of land available to let.
Let’s deal with the first claim first.
The right to buy has only ever been and is only being proposed for secure tenants – so-called 1991 tenants. As Fergus Ewing confirmed in 2003, no-one has or is proposing that any such right to buy be granted to tenants of 2003 tenancies. It is thus disingenuous to claim that any landowner should be put off granting such short tenancies. Indeed from 2005 to 2012, the number of SLDT tenancies has increased from 285 to 540 and LDT tenancies from 99 to 321. (3)
As for 1991 tenancies, they have been in decline for decades (down from 6348 in 2005 to 5402 in 2012). There is no possibility of any reduction in land let under traditional secure tenancies for the simple reason that landowners stopped granting such leases a long time ago.
There are thus no credible or reasonable grounds for arguing that the threat of a right will lead to a reduction in the amount of land to rent. No-one is granting secure tenancies in any case and no-one is proposing that 2003 tenancies be made subject to any right to buy.
Now let’s deal with the second claim.
It presumes that if most or all of Scotland’s tenant farmers become owner occupiers, there will be a reduction in the extent of land that is tenanted. Since 1982, there has been a steady decline in tenanted land as illustrated in the graph below – down from 42% in 1982 to 24% in 2012.
GRAPH – Percentage of agricultural land under a tenancy lasting at least one year 1982 – 2010. Source see footnote 3
Of course, if all tenant farmers were to exercise their right to buy, there would be a further immediate reduction but the important point is that there is no evidence to suggest that the extent of land that is leased overall will, in the longer term, reduce any further than it has already.
Indeed, there is evidence to suggest the precise opposite. In Norway, for example, in a country of owner-occupiers where tenant farmers as we recognise them in Scotland don’t exist, tenanted agricultural land has increased from 20% in 1979 to over 42% in 2010. See graph below.
Source: Statistics Norway, Census of Agriculture 2010.
Most countries in the EU have a high proportion of tenanted land. Compared to Scotland’s 24%, France has 74% and Germany 62% of its agricultural land rented out to farmers.
percentage of tenanted land
Share of rented land as a % of the total UAA (2007) Source: Eurostat
The difference is that the vast majority of Scotland’s secure tenants own no land – they rent the whole farm including the family home. In France and Germany, the vast majority of farmers who rent land are also owner-occupier farmers themselves. In other words, across most of Europe owner-occupier farmers lease land to each other as and when they need to. The landlord and the tenant have equal status because they are both landowners. So whereas in Scotland, it is common for landowners to have multiple tenants, in France and Norway, individual farmers have multiple landowners.
Implementing a right to buy for Scotland’s tenant farmers could easily, if the European experience is any guide, lead to an increase in the amount of tenanted land available.
If this is the case, it lends weight to the argument put forward by Professor James Hunter that the introduction of the right to buy should be accompanied by new freedoms to contract. This would mean landowners were free to enter whatever arrangements they saw fit with prospective tenants. Existing leases would continue until they expired and perhaps the 2003 tenancies would continue to be available for those wishing an off the shelf arrangement.
Richard Lochhead gave evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate CHange and Environment Committee this morning on agricultural tenancies. I will post a link to the official report as soon as it is available. Meanwhile, here is the text of a statement released after the Committee.
“Absolute right to buy will only be considered for secure farm tenancies in Scotland, the Rural Affairs Secretary has confirmed. Speaking after giving evidence on a range of agricultural matters to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, Mr Lochhead said:
“I have taken this opportunity to confirm more detail about the Scottish Government’s review of tenant farming legislation. I have already made clear that it would be inconceivable for this review not to include consideration of absolute right to buy.
“Today I was pleased to clarify, for the avoidance of any doubt, that consideration of absolute right to buy will be restricted to secure 1991 Act agricultural tenancies which can be passed down through families for generations.
“I also confirmed the review of Agricultural Holdings legislation will be a Ministerial-led, rather than external, review. I will soon be making an announcement on the remit of the review, the appointment of review group members and the timetable involved.
“Many tenant farmers have made the case that current tenure arrangements stifle on-farm investment. Given the current land reform debate in rural Scotland we need to consider what is in the best interest of rural communities and the role individual land ownership plays in this. Landlords’ views must also be heard.
“It is also important that we give all tenant farmers and stakeholders the opportunity to enter into full and frank dialogue about absolute right to buy.”