The reading room

11th December 2020


New books to be inspired by...

Who Owns England?

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

Over time, the value of land is inflated by investments around it and the increasing scarcity of its natural resources; the landowner can sit back, charge rent and cash in. This wouldn't be a problem if land were equally distributed, but in England, that is far from the case.

In Who Owns England? Guy Shrubsole deals with who these landowners are, how they came to own so much, and the implications for everybody else. Shrubsole deduces that 30% of England's land is owned by the aristocracy and gentry; 18% by private companies; 17% by wealthy individuals, many of whom don't live in England; 8.5% by the state; 5% by homeowners; 2% by conservation charities; 1.4% by the Crown; and 0.5% by the Church.

Shrubsole links land inequality with many ills affecting England: the housing crisis, wealth inequality, tax avoidance, money laundering, deforestation, incinerated uplands, and lack of access to the country for the ordinary person. 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. Shrubsole places the cause far back: “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 cronies. Four thousand Anglo-Saxon thegns were replaced by less than 200 Norman barons and clergy.“ Much of this land is still owned by their descendants:

Shrubsole writes that when the 6th Duke of Westminster was asked to advise young entrepreneurs how to succeed in Britain, he replied: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.“ Shrubsole writes a manifesto for land reform: ending unsustainable land practices, land ownership secrecy, the empty homes scandal and the sale of public land; banning overseas companies and trusts from owning land and property in England; rejuvenating the green belt; and extending the right to roam. Many of us advise organisations that own a large amount of land. We must help them understand that this comes with obligations, determine what those obligations are, and work to restore the balance.

Read the full version of Marek's review at bit.ly/3696So3

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

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