Who Owns England? A Review
Who Owns England? By Guy Shrubsole, William Collins 2019
This is an important book, not least because Shrubsole is a contributing author to the recent Labour Party policy statement, Land for the Many.
Woody Guthrie sang This land is your land. But he sang it of the USA, not Britain. The answer to the question posed by the book’s title is twofold:
· This land is not our land.
· We don’t actually know who owns it.
Now this is incredible. In 1086 William the Conqueror ordered the production of the Domesday Book. It recorded not only all the people, but every cow, pig and strip of land in England. The purpose of writing all this down was to squeeze the peasantry still harder.
A thousand years later the ownership of land in England is a bit of a mystery. Why? Don’t we have a Land Registry? Yes, it was set up in 1862. But land is not registered till it’s sold or otherwise disposed of. And vast tracts of the English countryside have been in the hands of the same families, descendants of the Norman barons, for over a thousand years. In addition it has been noted that the Registry was constructed “by lawyers on behalf of landowners designed to conceal ownership, not reveal it”.
Shrubsole began his sleuthing in his home county of Berkshire. In an obscure provision of the Highways Act of 1980 landowners can prevent new rights of way from being created across their land. But they have to inform the local authority where the boundaries of their land lie. Shrubsole used this information to build up a picture of who owns Berkshire. Incredibly he found that half the county was owned by just thirty landowners. This is not an anomaly. The Country Land and Business Association, which lobbies for the landlord class, reckons that 36,000 landowners (0.06% of the population) own half of the rural land of England and Wales.
It’s not just farm land either. Much of central London is owned by four aristocratic estates - Grosvenor, Portman, Cadogan and Walden. What did the Duke of Westminster and the Grosvenor family do to deserve all this? Their remote ancestor was a hunting buddy of William the Conqueror. So that’s all right then. They’re ‘worth’ £10.1bn according to the Sunday Times Rich List of 2019. Their wealth increased by £136m over the previous year while they did nothing. So they’re not starving.
It would be wrong to give the impression that the old money of the aristocracy owns all the land. England is a capitalist country and capitalist wealth has poured in to land to join the gravy train. Shrubsole quotes the Campaign Group Global Witness which explains that “London is the money-laundering capital of the world.” The villains can turn their ill-gotten gains into property. Many of the empty mansions in the posh parts of London are owned by crooks and oligarchs from around the world. Who owns them is often impenetrable, tracing ownership back to secretive trusts located in tax havens.
George Monbiot, editor of Labour’s Land for the Many, points out that land prices have risen fourfold since 1995. Land now accounts for more than half the net wealth of the country. As Mark Twain advised, “Buy land, they aren't making it anymore”. So land has become a speculative asset, with the price pumping up as the hot money flows in. As a result in 2011 farmers bought 60% of agricultural land. Six years later it’s only 40%. Working farmers are being outbid by speculators.
When planning permission is granted to build on farm land, the price can increase 250 times over. What a bonanza! Labour is poised to stop this racket. Why are house prices so high? 70% of the cost is the land beneath. Monbiot reckons that if we could buy agricultural land at its price as farm land to build on, prices of new houses in the south-east could fall by almost 50%.
Land is also a shelter from Inheritance and Capital Gains tax. The rich benefit from this. The rest of us pay. The rich have plenty of money to pay some of the slickest minds in the legal world to dodge tax. Tax Justice UK recently reported that 234 families worth more than £1m in assets shared £458m in Inheritance Tax breaks. Meanwhile, 261 families owning more than £1m in agricultural property trousered £208m in tax relief.
On top of that some of the wealthiest in the land are given handouts by the taxpayers in the form of farm subsidies. “Seventeen of Britain’s dukes together received £8 million in farm subsidies in 2015. The following year fourteen of the country’s marquesses were handed £3.5 million”
Did we ever own any of the land of England? There were the commons, uncultivated land giving the peasants the right to pasture animals, collect firewood, go fishing, collect clean water and try to survive as independent proprietors. According to Shrubsole about 27-30% of land in England was held in common around 1600. This was stolen in succeeding centuries by the landowning class in a massive land grab, expropriating the common people and forcing them more and more to survive as wage workers. In 1873 common land was just 5.3% of the total. Now it’s 3%. The enclosure of the commons by commercially minded aristocrats was an important part of the dispossession of the smallholders, preparing the way for capitalism.
Marx proclaimed: “The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the prehistoric stage of capital... And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
That wasn’t the end of it. Over the past 40 years 5 million acres of public land worth £400bn was sold off. Professor Brett Christophers calls this, “the biggest privatisation you’ve never heard of” and declares it to be a new enclosure of the commons.
Shrubsole visited St George’s Hill in Surrey. In 1649 it was squatted by the Diggers, a communist group inspired by Gerrard Winstanley to make the land “a common treasury for all”. Now it houses a gated community, ‘Britain’s Beverley Hills’. Shrubsole adds poignantly, “a large chunk...is now owned in Panama, Switzerland and the Caribbean”.
The labour movement has always fought to open up access to the land. National parks were established by the Labour government in 1949. But the national parks are not mainly owned by us, the people. “Ninety-five per cent of the Yorkshire Dales... is in private hands, as is 90 per cent of the Norfolk Broads. Dartmoor is largely owned by the Duchy of Cornwall...” And so forth. This obviously sets up a conflict of interest between farming and the needs of conservation and recreation.
The 1997 Labour government introduced the ‘right to roam’ over uncultivated land - mountain, moor, heath, down and common. This right was fought for by working class people - most famously in the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the Peak District in 1934. As Shrubsole points out, the right to roam at present only covers 10% of the land of England and Wales. Labour wants to massively extend this, for instance to urban, suburban and rural areas not covered by the 1997 Act, such as forest and river banks.
Adam Smith is considered an advocate of capitalism. But he knew the landlord class are parasites. When he declared, “The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed” he had them bang to rights. Marx went further. “From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another.” That is the direction we should be charting.