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.