Book review: Who Owns England?

11th December 2020


Marek Bidwell discusses Guy Shrubsole's book on land inequality in England

Kate Raworth's seminal sustainability text Doughnut Economics tells us that dealing with unequal land ownership is essential if we are to create a fair society and a thriving distributive economy. Over time, the value of land is inflated by investments around it and the increasing scarcity of its natural resources. The large landowner can sit back, charge rent and cash in. This wouldn't be a problem if land were equally distributed, but in England (as in many other countries) that is far from the case.

Digging out the data

Raworth describes how Henry VIII grabbed land belonging to the monasteries in the 16th century, and how successive Enclosure Acts during the next 200 years created “a large class of landless workers who had to choose between ploughing their landlords' fields or heading to industrial centres to find waged work.“ The landless became wage slaves.

In Who Owns England? Shrubsole takes Raworth's analysis to the next level by attempting to determine precisely 'who owns England?' This was not an easy task, because in England, unlike some countries, land maps don't exist; the Domesday Book of 1085 was never updated. Winston Churchill called for a land value tax in 1909, and the Liberal government attempted to map and value the land, but the policy was axed when the political weathervane turned a few years later.

Nevertheless, Shrubsole, supported by fellow researchers, employed a variety of shrewd techniques to map landholdings. These included Freedom of Information Requests to public sector bodies; publicly available data on EU farm subsidies; and, ironically, submissions to local authorities under the Highways Act from landowners themselves, intended to guard against new rights-of-way claims.

Shrubsole praises Companies House, which opened up all of its data for free in 2015, “providing a model for what an open Land Registry should look like“. Although Land Registry titles can be purchased for £3 each, it would “set you back a cool £72m to buy all 24m records,“ he points out.

Inequality through the ages

Who Owns England? is logically structured, dealing with the main groups of landowners, who they are, how they came to own so much of England, and the implications for everybody else. Alongside the facts, the author includes illuminating first-person descriptions of his sleuthing around the country, such as paying a visit (trespassing) to St George's Hill in Surrey. Today, this is a 964-acre private estate and golf course that is home to multi-million-pound mansions – but once it was common land and the birthplace of the Diggers, a radical land reform movement founded during the English Civil War.

Shrubsole deduces that 30% of England's land is owned by the aristocracy and gentry (old money); 18% by private companies; 17% by wealthy individuals, many of whom don't live in England (new money); 8.5% by the state, such as local government, the Ministry of Defence and Forestry Commission; 5% by homeowners; 2% by conservation charities; 1.4% by the Crown; and 0.5% by the Church. This leaves 17% unaccounted for.

You can see that only a small portion of land is owned by you and me. For Shrubsole, this matters. He links land ownership inequality with many of the social and environmental ills affecting England today: the housing crisis, wealth inequality, tax avoidance, money laundering through the UK property market, deforestation, incinerated uplands denuded of wildlife, and lack of access to vast swathes of the country for the ordinary person, creating a feeling of disenfranchisement. He writes: “The civil offence of trespass means that anyone setting foot on land where no public right of way exists without the consent of the landowner is a trespasser, and can be prosecuted.“ The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 established a right to roam in only 8% of England, and much of this is mountain and moorland – far from where most people live.

Shrubsole places the cause of this disparity further back than Raworth, writing: “It was William the Conqueror who declared that all land in England belonged ultimately to the Crown, straight after the Norman Conquest of 1066. At William's instigation, titles in land henceforth would be derived from the Crown. The king sat at the top of this feudal pyramid, and the whole country was now his to carve up as he pleased: a giant cake to be cut into slices and handed out to his cronies. Four thousand Anglo-Saxon thegns were replaced with by less than 200 Norman barons and clergy.“

Much of this same land is still owned by descendants of those barons and clergy. Shrubsole writes that the now deceased 6th Duke of Westminster was asked to advise young entrepreneurs on how they could succeed in modern Britain. He replied: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.“

A plea for reform

At the end of the book, Shrubsole writes a positive manifesto for land reform in England. It includes ending secrecy around land ownership; ending the scandal of empty homes; ending unsustainable land practices such as burning moorland; banning companies and trusts registered overseas from owning land and property in England; stopping the 'fire sale' of public sector land; rejuvenating the green belt to provide allotments, community farms, woodlands and nature reserves; and extending the right to roam to include all uncultivated land, such as woodland and riverbanks. Private gardens would remain off-limits.

This isn't pie in the sky. Scotland passed land reform acts in 2003 and 2015, which gave people the right of access to most land and inland waters for recreation, provided they behave responsibly; communities the right to buy land likely to contribute to sustainable local development; and powers for local authorities to provide allotments. I shared in these benefits during a holiday on the Isle of Mull, taking a path through a beautiful ancient woodland (once a private estate) that led to an exposed rocky headland. The inhabitants of nearby Ulva, once removed from their island during the Highland Clearances, exercised their right to buy in 2018, and today are busy turning around decades of economic and social decline.

What are the implications of all this for environmental and sustainability professionals? Many of us work for or advise organisations that own a large amount of land. Our job is to help those we represent to understand that such power comes with social and environmental obligations, to determine what those obligations are, and work to restore the balance.

Marek Bidwell, FIEMA CEnv, is director of environmental training and consultancy firm Bidwell Management Systems.

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