Jonathan Swift observed that anyone who could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
Given the number of column inches and headlines over the past year which have been devoted to the progress of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, anyone following the trials and tribulations of the restructuring of the European agricultural support scheme would be forgiven for feeling dissatisfied with the lack of clarity on the new regime. The details of the scheme, which is vital to farmers looking to plan the future of their businesses, remain unknown despite the length of time which the negotiations have taken. Once these political wranglings are complete, the Member States or, in the case of the United Kingdom, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, will formulate their own interpretation of the political agreement reached at a European level but not before the UK has reached an internal agreement on the allocation of the UK's slice of the European CAP budget amongst these administrations.
Prolonged uncertainty over the administration and logistics of the replacement scheme is likely to be damaging for Scottish farmers. It remains to be seen how the Scottish Government will use its discretion to implement the new rules. However, in a region such as Dumfries & Galloway, with the shift to an area based system, there seems little doubt that the new regime will mean less monetary support for the region's farmers although transitional provisions are likely to be introduced to lessen the impact of the changes. Given the importance of the support system to the farming industry, the correct documentation of the transfer of Single Farm Payment Entitlements when buying, selling or leasing land cannot be overstated - particularly when we understand that 2013 may be the reference year for the scheme going forward.
This summer also saw the surprise announcement from Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, that an Absolute Right to Buy for Agricultural Tenants would be considered within the wider land reform agenda and the re-populated Land Reform Review Group welcomed the Scottish Affairs Committee's consultation and inquiry on land reform in Scotland. The prospect of agricultural tenants' Absolute Right to Buy continues to provoke emotive responses from all parties and while the debate continues, landowners and tenants alike should give careful consideration to new agreements and amendments to current agreements relating to the occupation and use of land.
Against this background, the independence referendum in Scotland in September 2014 looms large on the horizon and it is evident that the referendum's impact on the agricultural sector in Scotland is being scrutinised by rural voters. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scotland is facing the introduction of the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) in April 2015 to replace Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT). This will create distinct differences in the way in which the acquisition of land will be subject to tax in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. The LBTT will be a progressive tax, as the rate of tax will be applied on the proportion of the price which falls within the appropriate band of tax instead of the 'slab' tax rates of SDLT. As the first Scottish tax in over 300 years, the Scottish Government will have control over the rates which are not due to be announced until autumn 2014. That announcement will be closely watched by every prospective purchaser of property in Scotland.
So, against a better harvest than many would have dared to wish for at the beginning of 2013, politicians have their hands full and their work cut out to nurture the time which has been invested so far to allow their efforts to bear fruit for Scottish farmers. Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is certain and that is that changes are imminent and any business has to react to those changes to succeed.
This article appeared in Dumfries and Galloway life magazine