When I first locked horns with it, the organisation was the Scottish Landowners Federation. Then it became, to the consternation of some members, the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association. Now – and it is possible I have missed one of its “a rose by any other name” changes over – it is Scottish Land and Estates.
As other organisations, – didn’t the Post Office try a name change? – and indeed nuclear reactor sites such as Windscale that was Sellafield, have found, a change of name does not usually change perception.
Whatever name their official body goes under, the members are still landowners with a vested interest in maintaining control of their own land and ensuring that the advantage lies with them when dealing with tenants.
I might disagree with landowning policies and attitudes, as I often have, but they’re entitled to representation and a point of view, even if that can usually be summed up as “What we have, we hold” – at least until a tenant farmer aspiring to become an owner-occupier comes up with an acceptable offer for his farm.
That, I suspect, is the usually unspoken factor in the present furore over Scottish government statistics that show a 10 per cent drop in the number of secure – so-called traditional – tenancies between 2005 and 2011, down from 7,470 to 6,743.
My bet is that many of the “lost” tenancies have gone because the tenant bought his farm and became an owner-occupier, some high profile such as Jim Walker, former president of NFU Scotland, many others commercial farmers who saw the chance to buy their land as a business opportunity.
Whatever the reasons, the decline in tenancies is part of a century-long process. Coming as I do from a continuous line of tenant farmers, I’m sorry in a way to see that.
But what seems an insatiable human urge to own land wherever possible shows no sign of slackening. Of six farms in our immediate area that were tenanted 30 years, four are now owner-occupied, one farmed on contract and only one with the original resident tenant farming family. Two have changed hands more than once in that time.
Landowners in Scotland have been criticised for not making more tenancies available to ambitious young farmers, for stopping new blood coming into farming, and for generally being awkward and obstinate about what they do with their land, particularly since the 2003 Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act was passed.
The fear of landowners is that the act will lead to an automatic right to buy at an advantageous price for sitting tenants. That’s why landowners are extremely wary of what sort of tenancy agreements they will enter into and – much as it pains me to offer any kind of support for landowners – who can blame them?
Any of us who owns property of any kind tends to be protective of it, no matter how acquired, and in the history of many of Scotland’s biggest landowners that usually involved riding roughshod over the peasantry, accumulating land, power and wealth in much the same way as Russian oligarchs have done more recently.
I still have much sympathy with the concerns of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association about this decline in tenancies.
From their point of view, it is a disaster that opportunities for new tenants, or for existing tenants to move on to a bigger holding with a secure tenancy, are shrinking.
There are other tenancy statistics – the number of short limited duration tenancies rose between 2005 and 2011 from 285 to 499 and the number of long tenancies increased from 99 to 301 – in both cases, for a fixed number of years, not no-limit secure tenancies.
Such limited tenancies do give new entrants a chance of a start – if, of course, and it’s a big if, farmers already in business as tenants or owner-occupiers don’t take advantage of a limited tenancy agreement to extend their business or give a son a start. Again, who can blame them?
In short, it’s as rough and tough in the farm tenancy and landowning world as it is anywhere else in business. There are good landowners and honest, plain-dealing, tenants, but, unfortunately, not as high a percentage of either as we like to think. When protecting our own best interests, it is every man for himself and the decline in tenancies and increase in owner-occupation reflects that perfectly.