Agricultural workers as protected tenants

A small but significant number of farms have estate cottages which are occupied by active or retired agricultural workers who still have lifetime security of tenure under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. Any worker who lived in a property provided by his employer before the Housing Act came into force may be protected, even if he subsequently moved to another property.

The situation can be onerous for landlords. During a worker’s employment, he may occupy the property for free or pay a low rent. Once he leaves the landlord’s employment (either to retire or work elsewhere)), he retains his security of tenure and must only pay a “fair” rent, which will be somewhat lower than the market rent for the property if it were let on an assured shorthold tenancy. His security of tenure can be inherited by a surviving partner or, in some cases, by other members of his family who were living with him on his death. For workers who based their service in part on the assumption that they would have the benefits of the 1976 Act for life, this arrangement is fair. For landlords who have to house former workers at a reduced rent who, perhaps, have left their employment and gone to work elsewhere, the situation can seem harder to justify.

Where a landlord needs a particular property back, the most common courses of action are either to provide suitable alternative accommodation to the tenant (and the tenant will have the same security in that new accommodation) or to pay the tenant a cash sum to persuade him to give up his rights and move of his own accord. Both courses of action are usually expensive. There is a third course of action, however, which is to persuade the local authority that the landlord has an objective need to house another agricultural worker in the property. In those circumstances, the landlord is obliged to offer the tenant a council house.

Local authorities are no longer equipped to deal with such claims. Until 2012, local authorities had advisory committees who assessed 1976 Act claims and advised the authorities on their merits, but the government in its wisdom chose to disband those committees, leaving no one to carry out their function. We have recently acted in a case making use of this process, and it has revealed some interesting lessons.

Local authorities have limited housing stock and will not look sympathetically on claims by landlords that they should house people who would usually not be considered a priority for social housing. The scheme of the 1976 Act is in conflict with the principles according to which housing is now allocated. Now that there are no advisory committees to assess whether a landlord has a genuine need to house another agricultural worker in the property, landlords should expect to have to provide strict proof (perhaps in the form of a statutory declaration) to satisfy the authority’s solicitors that the need is genuine. Landlords certainly cannot assume that any assertions to that effect will be taken at face value: on the contrary, they are likely to be treated with suspicion. Nevertheless, if landlords can provide satisfactory evidence of their need to house another worker, it seems that local authorities (at least in this area) accept that the 1976 Act binds them and they will have to consider making an offer of alternative accommodation.

Miles Coates is a solicitor specialising in agricultural law in the Property department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Suffolk.

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