Land ownership ‘obsession’ is stalling best use progress

John Glen, new chief executive of Buccleuch Estates
John Glen, new chief executive of Buccleuch Estates

An ‘obsession’ with who owns the land rather than the best use of it halts progress, Buccleuch Estates’ boss told a seminar in Edinburgh last week.

Buccleuch’s chief executive John Glen was speaking at the NFU Scotland conference on land tenure in the city last Tuesday.

Farming - crop spraying near Crailing in The Scottish Borders.

Farming - crop spraying near Crailing in The Scottish Borders.

He said: “The political and academic obsession with who owns land causes people to take defensive positions and does not encourage room to discuss the practical and very real issues that affect us all.

“We need a move towards an environment where ideas can be shared and rationally debated without everyone instantly reverting to entrenched positions.

“Logically, the discussions should always start from a collective desire to achieve the best use of land but that is impossible to do this whilst there is the unrelenting obsession with diverting the conversation to the question of ownership.”

Landowners and tenants needed more ‘breathing space’ to come up with lasting solutions to working better together, he said, particularly in the areas of new entrants, diversification and built infrastructure on farms.

At Buccleuch the aim is to develop ‘whole estate’ planning which, with respect to the estates’ agricultural arm, means “competitive, sustainable and dynamic” farms he said. “Dynamism is particularly crucial in the debate on new entrants.

“If people are to be able to enter the industry and subsequently move up the farming ladder then in simple terms more land needs to be available,” he told delegates.

“Ideally this will come from both turnover within the existing tenanted sector, as well as more owner occupiers feeling incentivised to let some of their land. Buccleuch as a business is still learning on the new entrant issue.”

Mr Glen continued: “We have established five new entrant units in the last four years and a school report would read ‘good effort but could do better’.

“Some are progressing well but some are struggling and we need to understand why. These important issues deserve to be given serious time and rational consideration away from the background noise of the land ownership debate.”

The general tone of the seminar was the need to let go of “polarising arguments” and focus on creating “a thriving tenanted sector with secure opportunities for young and new entrants” said an NFU Scotland spokesperson.

Other speakers at the meeting included Tenant Farming Forum (TFF) chairman Phil Thomas, Brodies solicitor Clive Phillips, former Scottish Tenant Farmers Association chairman Angus McCall, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Richard Lochhead and representatives from NFU Scotland’s New Generation group.

The union had invited the experts to lay out a vision for land tenure in 2020. 
NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller, who chaired the event, said last week: “Our ring-fenced, traditional tenanted sector increasingly operates in a climate of short-termism, which is inhibiting investment and new entrants to farming.

“Today’s seminar is about the future; it is not about tuning today’s operating environment but creating a blueprint for aspiring farmers in their twenties and thirties. If we are to move to a more collaborative era we, in the rural sector, must embrace change and drive it.

“We need to start exploring areas like share-farming, rent for reconstruction, freedom of contract and other devices. These were all on the agenda today and could be the basis for creating new opportunities in Scotland’s land tenure system.”