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How we pay for our richest landowners

From £2.7m for Serco to £750,000 to the Duke of Westminster, an NS investigation shows just how much our biggest landowners receive each year in state handouts.

A political consensus has hardened that there are too few houses being built and that our planning laws are too restrictive. Equally most people seem to believe that too much of Britain, especially England, has been bulldozed and obliterated; that our land is less pleasant and less green with each passing year. In fact, only 10.6 per cent of England (and 6 per cent of Britain) is developed. The myth spun about this country is that land is scarce. It is not – landowners, many of them aristocrats who acquired their land through a quirk of ancestral good luck or who benefited from the Norman Conquest, the dissolution of the monasteries or the enclosure of common land, are paid to keep it off the market through a system of European Union agricultural subsidies (see table below). What is scarce is land on which there is planning permission to build.

Yet the question of who owns Britain, how the land came to be owned and what it means for the rest of us has never been answered adequately. The Labour Party, for example, never speaks of the need for a land value tax (which is supported by Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’s influential economics commentator) and does not mention land reform, which was once a great reforming Liberal cause.

It was Britain’s iniquitous system of land ownership that prompted Herbert Asquith to pass the Parliament Act in 1911 and assert the primacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords, one of the most redoubtable defenders of the landed interest.

More than a century later, the situation is little improved. The United Kingdom is 60 million acres in size, of which 42 million acres are designated “agricultural” land and 12 million are “natural wastage” (forests, rivers, mountains) owned by institutions such as the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust. The remaining six million acres are the “urban plot”, the densely congested land on which our houses, factories and offices are built. (Most of the 62 million people of these islands live on just three million acres.)

What this means, in effect, is that 69 per cent of British acreage is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population, or 158,000 families
(the so-called cousinhood), a concentration of ownership unrivalled in western Europe with the exception of the kingdom of Spain.

Green, unpleasant land

This maldistribution of land is one of the primary, if largely unacknowledged, causes of the current housing crisis. Though there is no shortage of land in Britain, little of it is available for development, given the enduring dominance of a landowning elite. The frequent lament
that the countryside has been “concreted over” is unsupported by evidence. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2011, and the most comprehensive survey of the country’s natural environment and resources ever undertaken, concluded that just 6.8 per cent of the UK’s land area could be classified as urban. Even this figure overstates the extent of development. In England, for instance, where 10.6 per cent of land is designated as urban, 54 per cent of that total is green space (parks, sports pitches, cemeteries and so on), with domestic gardens accounting for 18 per cent and water (rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs) for 6.6 per cent. In sum, 78.6 per cent of English urban land is designated as “natural” rather than built.

In the UK as a whole, it is “enclosed farmland” that accounts for by far the largest share of land (40 per cent), followed by mountains, moorlands and heath (18 per cent) and woodland (12 per cent, a figure that has doubled since 1945). For those who question why UK homes are both the smallest in Europe and the most expensive, the answer is that 90 per cent of the population lives on just 5 per cent of the land. Viewed in this context, it is unsurprising that so many believe this is an overcrowded country in which rapacious developers have monopolised what little space remains.

That this system has endured, contrary to all reason, is testimony to the power and influence of those who benefit from it. The largest private landowner, not just in Britain but in Europe, is Richard Scott, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th Duke of Queensberry, who inherited his property empire on his father’s death five years ago. He owns 240,000 acres, including the Queensberry Estate, with its headquarters in Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries, and the Langholm Estate on the Dumfriesshire-Cumbria border, worth an estimated £1bn in total. His nearest rivals include the Duke of Westminster, who owns 133,100 acres (worth £6bn) and whose Grosvenor Estate includes the most valuable real estate in London (in Belgravia and Mayfair), and Prince Charles, who, in his cap­acity as Duke of Cornwall, owns 133,602 acres worth between £1bn and £1.2bn.

Were the government to announce that, despite their considerable means, these individuals would receive extensive subsidy from the taxpayer, there would be predictable outrage. Yet, in the form of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), such a programme (let’s call it “aid for aristocrats”) already exists. The average British household contributes £245 a year to the CAP, most of which is handed to the wealthiest landowners. Originally established with the intention of supporting small farmers and reducing Europe’s reliance on food imports, the CAP, which accounts for over 40 per cent (€55bn) of the EU budget, has become a slush fund for assorted dukes, earls and princes. Payment is based on acreage alone and takes no account of wealth, making the scheme one of the most regressive – the more you own, the more you get. In addition, since the EU’s definition of “farmer” does not require individuals to produce food or other agricultural products, many recipients are, in effect, paid not to farm.

A Freedom of Information request by the New Statesman to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveals that the largest landowners received millions of pounds in taxpayer subsidy last year. The Duke of Westminster, a multibillionaire, was paid £748,716 for his ownership of Grosvenor Farms, the Earl of Plymouth £675,085, the Duke of Buccleuch £260,273, the Duke of Devonshire £251,729 and the Duke of Atholl £231,188 for his Blair Castle estate. It was also a lucrative year for the Windsors. The Queen received £415,817 for the Royal Farms and £314,811 for the Duchy of Lancaster, while Prince Charles was paid £127,868 for the Duchy of Cornwall. Similarly well-remunerated was Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who received £273,905 for his 2,000-acre Glympton Estate in Oxfordshire, allegedly purchased with proceeds of the 1985 al-Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia. The largest individual UK beneficiary is Sir Richard Sutton, who was paid £1.7m for his Settled Estates, the 6,500-acre property near Newbury that he inherited with his baron­etcy in 1981, despite net assets of £136.5m.

Other unlikely recipients include Harrow School, which received £4,622, Severn Trent Water, which was paid £779,436, and the outsourcing company Serco, currently cashing in on the government’s privatisation of NHS services, which, courtesy of the public, received £2.7m in land subsidy. With EU member states simultaneously cutting jobs, wages and services at the behest of Brussels, it is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

Aware that it cannot legitimately sustain such corporate welfare at a time of austerity, the EU has vowed to reform the programme by capping direct payments at €300,000 and by ensuring that only “active” farmers receive subsidy. But even under these proposals, due to be implemented in 2014, the EU will still provide aid to landowners who derive just 5 per cent of their annual revenue from agricultural activity; and, in the case of the cap, the biggest farms will be able to avoid it simply by restructuring.

The Conservative Party seldom misses a chance to bash the Brussels bureaucrats, and yet, because of its enduring ties to the landed gentry, one hears little from it about the inequity of the CAP or the order it helps sustain.

Land reform is now both a political and an economic necessity for Britain. Here is an issue that should galvanise both the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman.

George Eaton is editor of The Staggers blog.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

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“Yes, it was entertaining”: A twisted tale of Twitter trolls and fake terror victims

Here’s what happened when I contacted people involved in the insidious new social media trend.

When I reach out to Sam to ask why she stole the image of a 19-year-old Minnesotan man to post on her Twitter account, the first thing she says is: “Am I getting paid?” The day after the Manchester Arena bombing, Sam took the profile picture of a man named Abdulfatah and posted it alongside a 137-character tweet. “Please retweet to help find Abdul,” she wrote. “He has chemo and we're very worried. We last heard from him before Ariana's concert”. She rounded it off with a hashtag. #PrayForManchester.

Abdulfatah was not a victim of the Manchester bombing and nor was he at Ariana’s concert, as he has been living in Cairo for the last year. Sam’s tweet was a lie that generated (at the time of writing) 1,280 retweets, mostly from people simply trying to help after a tragic terrorist attack. Over the last few years, trolls have responded to terrorism and other catastrophes by opportunistically pretending that their friends and family are among the victims of attacks. After the Manchester bombing, a handful of accounts continued this trend – for varied reasons.

“I had no aim,” is Sam’s simple response to being asked why she posted her tweet.

Sam explains that she wants me to pay her so she can “feed [her] team”, who she says are called the Halal Gang. After explaining that I cannot ethically pay for her interview, she concedes to speak when I say that I will link to her twitter account (@skrrtskrtt).

Born a male, 18-year-old Sam tells me she “prefers female pronouns” and immediately gives me her full name, town of residence, and the name of the English university where she studies civil engineering. When I ask for a form of ID to prove her identity, she claims she left her wallet on campus. When I ask her to simply email from her university email address, she says – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – “unfortunately i cannot provide u with evidence at this very moment”. For this reason, I will refer to her by her first name only. Her quotes are here copied verbatim from the messages she sent me online.

“I chose that mans image because he seemed like an easy target. I was quite intrigued by the huge number of retweets because i got the attention i never got at home. And yes i did him a favour by getting him clout. He's ugly so i guess I got him some girls. People who also made fake missing people are G's and i salute them.”

Why did you do it, I ask? The reply is one word. “Entertainment”.

***

Abdulfatah was casually scrolling through Twitter when he realised his profile picture had been stolen. “Honestly, it was horrific,” he tells me – again over Twitter’s messaging service – “I hope nobody has to go through what I did. Just imagine scrolling through Twitter only to find that some random person used your photo to claim you’ve gone missing in a bombing.”

When Abdulfatah decided to confront his troll on Twitter, his tweet got 63,000 retweets and 98,000 likes. “i'm from Cairo and i don't have Chemo... who tf are you? how do you know me???” he wrote – and his response went on to be featured in articles by The Sun, Yahoo!, Mashable, and AOL.com. The tweet is part of a larger story that has spread over the last few days – of “sick Twitters trolls” targeting innocent people by pretending they are missing. 

My Twitter chat with Abdulfatah spans a few hours, and he hammers home how “vile and disgusting” he finds the act of spreading fake victims on social media. “I hope people come to their senses soon and stop this type of behaviour. It’s not funny at all.” Half an hour after we exchange goodbyes, he messages me to explain that there is something else he wants to say.

“I totally forgot to mention this,” he begins. “I couldn't have done this without this groupchat I'm in called ‘Halal Gang’.”

***

In their 2017 book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, authors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner dedicate an entire chapter to “Identity Play” on the internet.

“Online and off, identity is a series of masks,” they write. “Whether online deceptions are harmless or targeted or somewhere in between, determining why anonymous or pseudonymous actors do the things they do can be very difficult.”

So why do people use the internet to deceive? The authors’ argue it is simple: “because they’re able to: because the contours of the space allow it.”

Creating a person online is incredibly simple. Believing that someone online is who they say they are is even easier. Many newspapers now create entire stories based around a single tweet – taking what is said and who said it as fact, and covering their backs with a few “appears to have” and “allegedly”s. By taking viral tweets at face value and crafting stories around them, media companies consistently break one of the internet’s oldest rules. Do not feed the trolls. 

***

Abdulfatah sent me a copy of his provisional driver’s license to prove to me that he is who he claims. After his announcement about the Halal Gang, I became suspicious that both the victim, Abdulfatah, and the perpetrator, Sam, were in fact working together to go viral. Why else would they both independently reference the same group? Instead of a random troll picking on a random person, was this the case of two friends working together to achieve social media fame?

“I have never met this person prior to this incident,” said Abdulfatah over Twitter, promising me that I could call him for clarification (at the time of writing, he has not answered his phone). “I feel offended that someone like that would ever try to claim to be a part of our group.” Abdulfatah was added to the Halal Gang (which is a Twitter group chat) in January, and says to me: “I promise you this isn't a troll.” It is worth noting that a Twitter search shows that Abdulfatah and Sam have never previously interacted publicly on the site.

From 19:43 to 20:30 on Wednesday night, I was added to the Halal Gang chat. The group describes themselves as a place for young people to “find peace and tranquillity” through the Islamic faith. The 12 members told me Sam was a “lost person” who used to be in the chat but was kicked out for inappropriate behaviour. Abdulfatah was her replacement (he says he didn’t know this) and thus Sam targeted him in her tweet after the Manchester attack. One member of the Halal Gang said that Sam was his ex and went on to send a sexually-suggestive picture of her in the chat.

“It wasn’t our intention to go viral, just to help out Abdul but I guess it was kind of cool to go viral lol,” said one member.

Rather than trolls targeting random people, this incident therefore seemed to be a case of personal rivalry and revenge. This goes some way to explaining the psychology behind, and the motivations of, people who claim to have missing friends and family after terrorist attacks. According to the Halal Gang, Sam was simply targeting her replacement, Abdulfatah, because she likes trolling.

But then, at midnight, I received another Twitter message, from a person wishing to remain strictly anonymous.

“This is a MAJOR conspiracy,” they wrote.

***

Most of the time people make up fake victims on social media, the motives are cut and dried.

Andrea Noel is a Mexican journalist whose picture was circulated after the Manchester bombing, in a collage purporting to show 20 missing people. She has been trolled extensively in the past after speaking on social media about her sexual assault, and believes some of the same “anti-feminist” trolls may have been at work.

“I started getting Facebook messages and Twitter messages from various people that I know… getting in touch with me to make sure I wasn’t in Manchester,” she tells me over the phone.

The collage Andrea appears in also includes photographs of YouTubers, and was featured on the Daily Mail’s Twitter and Fox News as a legitimate collage of missing people. According to Buzzfeed, 4Chan trolls may have been behind the picture, choosing people they disliked as their victims.

Yet when a handful of people create a fake image, it is thousands more who are responsible for its impact. In 2013, researchers found that 86 per cent of tweets spreading fake images after Hurricane Sandy were retweets, not original tweets.

Caroline Leo is a 16-year-old from Florida who gained over 15,000 retweets on her tweet of the collage. “I felt good about it because I was helping find so many people and my phone was literally freezing and I had to turn it off for a little while,” she tells me of the initial reaction to the tweet. Yet when multiple people contacted her to say it was fake, she decided not to delete it as some of those featured in the picture were actual missing people. “I was so happy to make their faces familiar to over one million people and I wanted to keep it up because I like Ariana so much and I wanted to help other people who love her just as much as I do,” she says.

Andrea understands Caroline’s motivations, but does think people need to be more careful about what they spread online. “If you realise that half of these people are YouTubers then just delete it, you know. Make a new one,” she says. “I understand that she’s trying to be sweet but after a couple of hours everyone knew this was fake… so, really just make a new one.”

Yet a big part of the reason people create fake images – or accidentally spread them believing them to be real and then don't want to delete them – is for the likes, retweets, and comments. The buzz that we feel from social media attention doesn’t go away just because of a tragedy, and Dr Linda Kaye, an expert in the psychological impacts of technology, explains social media interactions facilitate our “need satisfaction”.

“Humans are social animals and have a basic need for social belonging,” she says. “Perhaps these individuals who [use social media] in this way to gain ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family. Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

John, a YouTuber who was also featured in the collage and in a separate tweet claiming he was missing, urges people to think before they act on social media. “If there is one thing I would like to say about this all... I understand that during events such as this, information can develop and spread very rapidly,” he tells me, “but it doesn't hurt to try to confirm information through a second source.

“For instance, say that a story on Yahoo is claiming that I was a victim - is the BBC reporting the same story? During a crisis situation, I feel that disseminating the correct information to the general public is absolutely crucial and potentially lifesaving.”

***

The Twitter user who contacted me about the Halal Gang “conspiracy” refused to speak when I said I would not transfer $10 to his PayPal account. “$10 is a steal for the info I have not gonna lie,” they said. When I refused, they sent me this offensive meme from the adult cartoon The Boondocks.

At 3:05am, another anonymous Twitter user messaged me. They claimed that the man in the Halal Gang who claimed to be Sam’s ex and had sent me a sexual picture of her, was in fact trying to humiliate his ex. “It’s embarrassing don’t use that picture in any articles,” they wrote.

As it stands, there is potential that the Halal Gang were working together to get multiple viral tweets. There is also potential that the man who asked me for $10 was also trolling in turn by trying to tell me the Halal Gang were acting like this when they are, in fact, innocent. Yet if not Abdulfatah, some members of the group seem to be corresponding with Sam, as she changed her story after I spoke with them. “I believe they kicked me way before the incident and I’ll be completely honest with you, I wanted to get them back, yes,” she says, despite moments earlier saying that they kicked her out after her Manchester attack tweet.

It is impossible to work out Sam’s true motivations for creating a fake victim, as she is hiding behind her online persona and simply answered “nope” when I asked if there was a number I could call her on. Her comments – that she lives in a foster home and is emotionally abused by her family, that she is “not dumb enough to go to an Ariana Grande concert”, and that people critical of her actions “need to move on init” – read as though she is simply trolling me, a journalist, in turn.

There is no real way for me to know who is who they say they are, and whether the Halal Gang are telling the truth that they didn't collaborate with Sam (they refuse to send over screenshots of her being kicked out from the groupchat, as the chat has a “no SS” rule). As Phillips and Milner note, even experts have great difficulty identifying people online. Either way, there is clearly more of connection between Sam and Abdulfatah than the two initial tweets made it seem. 

The reason why this matters is because this story isn’t really about Sam, nor is it about Abdulfatah. If two friends (or people involved in the same group) seek to get revenge or go viral by attacking each other on social media, it is not their actions that have wide-reaching ramifications. It is the actions of the hundreds of thousands of people who choose to Retweet uncorroborated claims, and the journalists who take tweets as gospel. Naturally, in the painful hours proceeding a terror attack, we all make mistakes about what we share on social media. But we can fix them and we can avoid making the mistakes again.

Before claiming she wanted revenge, Sam told me she was acting on a desire to be entertained. I check with her, after this revelation, whether she succeeded in this aim. “So did you find it entertaining?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “It was entertaining.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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