The recent announcement by the Agricultural Ministry that it will prop farmers facing eviction from farmland leased to them by providing free legal assistance – even by depositing their rental income in court - and even to deposit their rent in court makes no legal difference to the predicament facing farmers.
Sources have since said the government is now working on a new law, but a new law would also fail to protect farmers without wider policy change, including changes to policies on rural development that have opened the countryside to speculative investment.
The reason why the constitutional courts have found the law that has kept ground rent low and renewals of lease guaranteed for as long as the farmer tills the land is because of rapid rise in price of land that has created a disproportion. The disproportion means that landowners have ended up making a pittance from ground rent in proportion to the price of land, and it is this disproportion that breaches their property rights.
Property rights are protected in the Maltese Constitution as well as the European Convention for Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights takes the view that restrictions on property rights are legitimate if it is in the public interest. Protecting agricultural land is a legitimate public interest, but only for as long as the restrictions do not place a disproportionate burden on private citizens.
Maltese constitutional courts take the same line, and the issue with agricultural rents – just as the issue with old property rents – is an issue of proportionality.
In its statement announcing and justifying free legal assistance to farmers, the government asserted that the aim of the law that protects agricultural leases is “to ensure that agricultural land is used for agricultural purposes and not be converted to other uses, among them recreation.”
Yet free legal assistance or offering to deposit the farmers’ rent in court does not in any way tackle the disproportionality.
Neither would a new law without wider policy change.
Courts cannot decide differently than they are doing simply because it is the government – instead of a private lawyer – that gives legal advice or assistance in court. Or simply because the government pronounces itself on the aims of the law.
Since the issue is disproportionality, the only solution is to find ways to narrow the difference between the price of land and the ground rent. That could be done either by allowing the annual rent to rise to become an acceptable percentage of price of land – say, 2-3 percent – or take measures to encourage a downward readjustment in runaway price of land.
It probably has to be a combination of both because at current land prices a ground rent of say 2-3 percent is still prohibitive to farmers. It will render farmers’ products uncompetitive on the market, and precipitate rapid demise of the agricultural industry in Malta.
On the other hand, runaway prices can only go through a readjustment if speculative investments in the countryside is brought to an end. The reasons for speculative investments is precisely because agricultural land is being shifted to other uses that make the land more valuable. Chief among these is using agricultural land for recreation, as well as policies that have made it easier to develop land beyond the development zone.
This was raised in a joint statement by the (national) Chamber of Commerce and Gozo Business Chamber, who called for “control on the proliferation of single-room developments in Outside Development Zones [in Gozo] that eventually expand into more extensive developments.”
Many of these are not tool sheds – these are rooms that largely serve as country pads for barbecues and picnics for friends and family. Some of them even have mini-kitchens and toilets.
It’s these developments that have increased the price of agricultural land and precipitated the issue of proportionality that has now become a breach of property rights of those who lease land to farmers.
So unless this is tackled holistically, any other measure in isolation, including a new law, would fail to resolve the predicament facing farmers who lease land.
Featured image: Copyright Daniel Cilia