Happy New Year

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Happy New Year to everyone who follows this blog. I hope you have an excellent 2015.

I am very conscious that I was lax in keeping this up to date during 2014, as a number of you have observed. Many apologies for that. I will seek to do better in the new year.

As the owner of land in Scotland, this coming year promises to be just as interesting as the last, with three major issues on the agenda. These are the implementation of the new CAP arrangements, the re-introduction of sporting rates and the broad issue of land reform.

On the first issue, most of the details are now known but there is sure to be a lot of implementation work behind the scenes, and many details still to be clarified. Many people will remember the last round of changes in England when major change was combined with the introduction of a new computer system. In the resulting chaos some farmers were waiting up to a year to get their payments, putting them at the mercy of their banks. Scotland now has major change and the introduction of a new computer system; let’s hope lessons have been learnt.

Our agricultural activities at Croick are low intensity, quite deliberately as we do not want the ground to be over-grazed. The key issue for us has therefore been a new definition of the minimum agricultural activity required to qualify for CAP. This is a definition unique to Scotland and designed to ensure that large quantities of non-agricultural hill ground do not suddenly become qualified for payments. The intention is understandable and makes sense but we have been worrying about where the minimum line would be drawn. It looks like we shall be fine based on our current plans, and our current understanding of the rules, but the devil may be in the detail. Watch this space!

The decision to re-introduce the concept of sporting rates in Scotland, which were abolished in the 1980s (except for a fisheries rate), took everyone by surprise when it was announced by our new First Minister. Perhaps though we should not have been surprised. At this stage we do not have the details of who will be liable to sporting rates, or how they will be calculated. We don’t know (or at least I don’t) whether it will be charged on deer and grouse only, or all game birds. We don’t know whether it will be charged on all deer shot, or only those shot for sporting income (what about a forester protecting his plantation – will he/she be liable?). So lots of uncertainties, and only one certainty; that the end results will be an extra financial burden on many estates.

And finally, we are promised proposals from the Scottish Government in response to the report of the Land Reform Group which reported last year. The essence of their report was a belief that all land must be managed in the ‘public interest’, without much clarity about how the public interest should be defined or any discussion or consideration of economic consequences. The writers of the report clearly believed that private landowners could not, on principle, be trusted to manage land in the public interest, and that community ownership was, equally on principle, a better ownership model and axiomatically more aligned with the public interest. There was scant evidence to prove either part of this. But I think we have to accept that there is a significant body of opinion in Scotland which is minded to share this view and that this is bound to be reflected in the forthcoming Scottish Government proposals. I suspect landowners in Scotland are going to have to work hard over the next few years to justify their existence, and will likely be grateful indeed that the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights includes a Right to Property. I suspect the extent and limits to those rights will be much debated in the months ahead.

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