Rural business organisation Scottish Land and Estates (SLE) has issued a stark warning to the Scottish Government over its controversial land reform proposals.

Speaking at press conference in Edinburgh, the body says the bill is ‘gambling with the future of communities in rural Scotland and investment in the transition to net zero’.

The expert panel at the event included Patrick Colquhoun of Luss Estates, Crawford Mackay of Galbraith, SLE chief executive Sarah-Jane Laing and legal adviser Jackie McCreery.

The organisation also argued that investment could go elsewhere due to the uncertainty pointed to a multi-million pound estate purchase falling through because of the reforms.

In a 46-page submission following a call for evidence from Holyrood’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, SLE highlights a series of critical faults.

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These include key measures such as breaking up large landholdings being reliant on ‘conjecture based on impressions rather than evidence’ and the potential sale of land to a tenant being thwarted by community purchase provisions.

SLE also argues the Land Reform Bill provided an ‘ideal opportunity’ for the Scottish Government to introduce better balance into the statutory regime for farm tenancies but instead key provisions governing the leasing of agricultural land will inflict a ‘grievous blow for generations’ on the tenant farming sector.

Stephen Young, policy director at SLE said: “We share the Scottish Government’s stated vision of a vibrant tenanted sector where that means there is a diversity of routes for people to enter and exit the sector, with landlords confident to let or to enter into agreements with people who will actively farm the land for the long term.”

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However, SLE said the potentially positive elements of the agricultural section of the Land Reform Bill are being wholly undermined and amount to a ‘disaster in the making for the tenanted sector’ which will have far-reaching consequences for tenant farmers in the future.

The organisation has also urged a complete re-think on the resumption provisions at the next stage of the bill.

In its evidence, SLE states: “We cannot state it more clearly that the resumption provisions are in direct conflict with the stated policy intent of helping tenants plan with certainty and promoting a thriving tenanted farming sector.

“They constitute, in our view, a disproportionate response to the perceived problem of fair compensation for resumption when there are other less damaging ways to achieve that outcome.

“The provisions relating to resumption will further strengthen the statutory cocoon in which the government has wrapped the existing group of 1991 Act tenants, at the expense of other tenants and aspiring tenants.

“It signifies the start of the retrospective tinkering with the fixed term tenancies created by the 2003 Act which were hailed as being ‘safe’ from this kind of interference and were to be the recommended leasing vehicle for landowners to use.”

It adds that it is ‘either disingenuous or inexplicably naive for ministers to state that these changes will somehow help the tenanted sector to thrive, when in fact they will do the complete opposite.’

Legal adviser to SLE, Jackie McCreery, warned: “Where public policy has, piece by piece, reduced a landowner’s rights and destroyed their confidence to let land, to a point that government begins to use references to compulsory purchase or compulsory sale as an answer, this cannot be truly in the public interest, nor best value for public funds.

She concluded: “Steps can be taken now to introduce balance and create a more positive environment to incentivise the desired activity rather than back one party into a corner and then introduce punitive measures to deal with the entirely foreseeable defensive reactions.”

However, some of the measures in the bill have attracted support from the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association (STFA).

STFA chair Christopher Nicholson said that monopoly control of land on the scale seen in Scotland is a barrier to the development of healthy rural communities and rural economies, and is a major obstacle to a just transition to net zero.

He added: “Of the tenancy reforms in the Bill, some of the key measures are aimed at addressing problems experienced by new entrants who have been farming using the non-secure fixed term leases introduced by Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003, known as 2003 Act leases.

“In particular, some 2003 Act tenants are facing large resumptions of land from leases following the sale of estates to green investors. The effect of these resumptions on the tenant is so great that it could not have been contemplated by the landlord and tenant at the start of the lease. Compensation for resumption must be modernised to allow fair treatment for these tenants.”