October 17, 2018
How not to engage
One of the provisions in the recent land reform legislation which may yet prove one of the most significant, is the duty it places on landowners to involve local people in decisions that will have an impact on how land is used or owned in the future. With Scottish Government guidance now published, it is clear what this engagement should look like. You’d think if you were the largest landowner in the UK, you might aim to be an exemplar of good practice. Quite the opposite if recent events in Dumfries and Galloway are anything to go by.
Last week, the Duke of Buccleuch put a portfolio of land on the market called Evertown, which includes farms, productive farmland, commercial forestry and planting opportunities near Canonbie in Dumfries and Galloway. The 9000 acres is composed of 18 lots on sale for £19.5 million – most hill ground is priced at three times its agricultural value and advertised as “suitable for forestry planting” and includes land with sitting tenants whose leases have not been renewed.
That includes folk like Alison and David Telfer who’ve farmed Cleuchfoot, near Canonbie for almost 20 years, first as managers and then on short-term leases, but must leave by this time next year, despite what they claim were verbal promises by the Duke’s father that they could stay till retirement and by the current Duke that he would reflect on local anger about removing tenants to secure lucrative forestry planting grants.
It seems hideously unfair. It is.
Local MSP Joan McAlpine has been working behind the scenes on the case and said this weekend: “The Duke and his factors are unflinchingly cruel in the case of the Telfers.
“He could easily allow them to see out their working lives at the farm – instead he has split their farm into two lots for sale, removing part of it imminently.
“The Telfers believe they are being victimised by a powerful and vindictive organisation, and I am inclined to agree.”
Of course the Buccleuch Estate disputes this. They say the Telfers always knew their latest five-year lease would expire and the couple have been given several extensions to their removal date plus a chance to buy their farm.
It would be surprising if two people on a meagre income, approaching retirement with no assets could find an asking price of £600,000. But then that isn’t the Duke’s problem.
Now all of this may seem like one more shameful aftermath of a tenancy fix created by the Scottish Government in the 1990s, (limited partnerships) which left a small group of tenant farmers without any security at all. Recent reforms have mercifully put most tenants on a more secure footing.
But this is far more than a local dilemma for one unfortunate couple.
This could be the case that prompts Scotland’s new Land Commissioner to intervene and place constraints on the Buccleuch’s land sale process.
Andrew Thin has welcomed the decision by Buccleuch Estates to sell land and diversify ownership hoping it would encourage other large landowners to do the same and “reflect on emerging land reform priorities.” But he added; “We expect Buccleuch and other landowners to conduct land disposals in a responsible manner, taking full account of the views of the local community including tenants who are involved.
“We will review the actions that Buccleuch now takes with care, and stand ready to offer advice where required.”
Some folk may snort at the idea the multi-millionaire landowner will need or heed advice from anyone.
But it’s likely the Duke is already consulting his land lawyers to make sure his actions conform with part 4 section 44 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, which says landowners must engage with local communities before taking any decision that may affect them. It’s new ground as the Scottish Government only published its guidance earlier this year, but there’s no doubt the proposed sale of 9000 acres has big implications for local people.
The Buccleuch Estate insists it has already conducted a lot of consultation over the last 10 months “to understand the aspirations of community bodies”. It says one or two groups have expressed interest in acquiring land and one sale is apparently at an advanced stage. Buccleuch says; “Other groups expressed satisfaction with their current agreements [and] a preference for their relationship with Buccleuch as a landlord to continue.”
The assumption that Buccleuch has consulted sufficiently will raise eyebrows locally after an angry public meeting in Langholm this spring in response to community anger at planting and criticism from local politicians.
Local MSP Joan McAlpine points out: “The Scottish Government Guidance on Engaging Communities in decisions relating to land states quite clearly that significant decisions on land use and ownership require formal engagement with the community and lists ways to do that.”
Indeed, the Land Commissioner has arranged for a letter to go to Buccleuch reminding them of their obligations under the new community engagement guidelines.
But the Duke doesn’t just need to begin a pioneering formal process of talking to local farmers and existing tenants, he may also have to involve a much wider community of interest. Land isn’t just a resource for folk currently working on it, but for the whole local population who might want to build houses or a new village, get individual plots of land for new farming tenancies, set up community woodlands, or get land for light industrial use like a sawmill, or – with enough time and encouragement – want to own land and follow the example of community-owned Eigg, offering free plots of land so youngsters can build truly affordable homes.
No-one will ever know if the whole community wants a vastly different future like this if folk are not brought together to focus on the incredible opportunity afforded by change.
According to veteran land reform campaigner and Green MSP Andy Wightman: “Historically, land market interventions have focused on acquisition of land through compulsory purchase by public bodies and on community buyouts at the point of sale.
“The sale of Evertown raises further questions about the usefulness of existing mechanisms and the free market in land.