In his latest blog, Tenant Farming Commissioner Bob McIntosh looks at how his work is having an impact in the sector.
I’ve been taking stock recently of how the work of the Tenant Farming Commissioner is having an impact in the sector. It’s been over four years since I was appointed to the role, so it seems like a good time to reflect on what’s been achieved and what lies ahead.
Those who read this column will know by now that the TFC is responsible for promoting and encouraging good relations between landlords and tenants. I do this by publishing guidance and codes of practice and responding to direct requests for advice. Since April 2017, I have been contacted by over 420 tenants, landlords, and their representatives to help them work through contentious issues or provide advice on the best way to proceed. Usually this involves helping people to understand specific aspects of agricultural holdings legislation or talking through how best to approach a particular situation. Advice can range from simply providing information to trying to help parties move forward from entrenched positions that have sometimes affected the business for many years; in these cases I am always keen to encourage mediation instead of litigation as a route to resolving difficulties and maintaining a good working relationship.
There’s been a steady increase in people who have contacted me – from 77 in 2017-18 to 127 in 2020-21 – seeking advice on a wide range of issues including repairs and maintenance obligations, rent reviews, succession, end of tenancies, new tenancies, diversification, and more recently the new relinquishment and assignation process. Unsurprisingly, half of all the enquiries I received last year were about the amnesty, and in recent weeks I’ve had several enquiries about how agricultural tenancies operate alongside shooting leases.
No matter what the issue, it has become clear that there are three key themes to the advice sought: understanding rights and responsibilities, communicating with the other party, and deciding what would be a fair and reasonable way to proceed. Where parties have got really stuck, I have encouraged them to engage with a professional mediator to help them work through matters without resorting to litigation. We have had considerable success with this and I now encourage anyone to give it a try as there is nothing to be lost even if mediation doesn’t work out.
But what does this mean for the tenant farming sector: have relations actually improved between landlords and tenants? It’s difficult to measure in general terms, as everyone’s circumstances are different, but to get a snapshot of current perceptions I recently asked members of the Tenant Farming Advisory Forum – which includes NFUS, SLE and STFA – for their views on the work of the TFC.
The membership organisations surveyed all rated (100%) the TFC’s role as very or extremely effective in promoting and encouraging good relations between landlords and tenants. This compares with 40% when they were asked the same question in 2018. More importantly, 86% went on to say that they thought that the TFC’s role has influenced behaviour. They said that the TFC codes and guidance have created useful frameworks so all parties involved are able to clearly see what to expect in common landlord and tenant negotiations, what their responsibilities are, and how they should respond. They added that the TFC’s role has created a benchmark of good behaviour and brought transparency and clarity to the sector that at times was missing. The survey also reported that the industry views the TFC as balanced and reasonable, respecting the rights of both tenants and landlords and seeking solutions that will help the sector in the long term.
We are going to look further into the TFC’s impact in individual cases, but at this point in time the view of the industry is very encouraging and working relationships between all parties is constructive – which is essential if we are going to work together through an upcoming period of great uncertainty. The tenanted sector needs to be prepared for changes in agricultural support and the opportunities and challenges that restructuring might bring. We all need to ensure that future rural policy works as well for the tenanted sector as it might for owner occupiers; for example, there should be comparable opportunities for tenants to access any new schemes for carbon sequestration, renewables and the environment.
Amongst all of this there is of course the ongoing challenge of encouraging fresh land into the tenanted sector. As the policy landscape changes, the letting of land may become a more attractive option for landowners and provide much sought-after opportunities for those seeking to farm.
For further information on any of the TFC’s work please visit the website, and if you would like to get in touch with the Tenant Farming Commissioner, please phone 01463 423 300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.