Tenant Farming Commissioner, Bob McIntosh reflects on the trends of agricultural tenancies in Scotland.
The ability to rent agricultural land is important to the development of the agriculture sector. It brings together those with land but no desire to farm and those who desire to farm but have no land and it provides opportunities for new entrants who don’t have the capital to buy a farm.
While the principle is widely supported, the mechanisms for achieving a healthy renting sector have evolved and changed in response to the constant search for the ideal balance between the landlord’s desire for flexibility and the tenant’s desire for security. Prior to 2003 the secure (Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991) tenancy was the main method of letting land but successive changes to agricultural holdings legislation have made this vehicle less attractive to landlords. The introduction of Limited Partnership agreements and the rise of contract farming arrangements was a common response by landlords and in recognition of the need for new letting arrangements the 2003 Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act saw the introduction of limited duration tenancies (LDTs). With 15 years experience now of limited duration tenancies it is interesting to review the current tenancy statistics and trends.
The total area of agricultural land rented out has been in long term decline for decades and by 2018 only 22% of Scotland’s agricultural land was in some form of rental agreement. Interestingly though, the last two years data suggest a small rise, for the first time in many years, in the area in some form of rental agreement. The most recent Annual Agricultural Land Occupation report produced by the CAAV has suggested that, for the first time, there was a rough balance between land leaving and entering the rented sector in Scotland. Whether this is a flash in the pan or represents a reversal in the decline of tenanted land remains to be seen but it is an encouraging sign. Of course land coming out of the rental sector is not always bad news. Scottish Government figures indicate that around half of the land coming out of tenancies between 2005 and 2015 was due to tenants buying their farms. While this may diminish, at least in the short term, the number of farms available for rent, it contributes to the Scottish Government’s desire for a greater diversity of land ownership and is clearly something that has been welcomed by the tenants given the opportunity to purchase their holding.
Since 2003 the number of Short Limited Duration Tenancies (SLDTs) and LDTs has steadily increased. By the end of 2017 there were estimated to be 1192 SLDTs and 710 LDTs in existence, some 4370 secure (91 Act) tenancies and some 459 Limited Partnership agreements. Over the last 12 years, therefore, the percentage of total tenancies represented by the limited duration tenancies has increased from 5% to 28% while secure tenancies have declined from 85% to 64% and Limited Partnerships from 11% to 7%.
While it seems clear that the introduction of limited duration tenancies has had a beneficial effect on the number of tenancies available, it is also clear that the duration of LDTs, which can be on any length, is tending to be relatively short (10 to 15 years). It seems that landlords are being cautious about committing to long term leases, probably because of a desire to retain future flexibility and fear of further legislative changes that might increase security for the tenant and/or extend the pre-emptive right to buy to limited duration tenancies.
This creates uncertainty for the tenant about the possibility of an extension and may reduce the incentive for the tenant to invest in improving the holding. It will also undoubtedly lead to some difficult discussions when a tenant who has invested emotionally and financially in a 15 year tenancy is told that it is not being renewed and that the tenant has 2 to 3 years in which to quit the holding and find an alternative home and possibly an alternative occupation. Even though there are legal grounds not to renew a tenancy there is the risk that political and public opinion may see this as an unfair ‘eviction’ and the sector has to approach this situation with care and sensitivity.
Ultimately, a fixed term tenancy must be able to be treated as such and landlords have the right not to renew a tenancy if it is not in their best interests. However, such a decision will be more readily supportable if it is preceded by a constructive dialogue with the tenant that attempts to find a mutually acceptable way forward. Such a discussion might include consideration of the tenant’s age and retirement plans, any opportunities for relocation or continued occupation of the house even if the land is not being re-let and any other special circumstances that might lead to consideration of an extension to the existing lease, granting of a new lease or formation of a joint venture or partnership as an alternative way forward. It may not be possible to arrive at a conclusion that suits both parties but that can only be determined if the discussion takes place.
Looking to the future, we have yet to see any impact of the recently introduced Modern Limited Duration Tenancy (MLDT) though its similarity to the LDT suggests that it will not radically change the direction of travel. We can perhaps expect to see more examples of partnerships, joint ventures and share farming arrangements between landlords and tenants as an alternative way forward. Such arrangements have the potential to increase the opportunities available to new entrants to ensure the ongoing vitality, resilience and competitiveness of the agricultural sector and rural regions in Scotland.