Every 30 years or so, the left looks at the land. Wiping the condensation from the carriage window, the radical observer peers out at a landscape that he finds both strange and shocking. How can it be that, after a century or more of socialist campaigns and Labour governments, land ownership in Britain should still be so concentrated? It is not simply that the great estates have survived to such a remarkable degree. If the Buccleuch and Norfolk and Devonshire acreages are shadows of their Edwardian selves, they are very substantial shadows. What is so notable is that the pattern of land ownership remains large all the way down. The squires have many more acres than smaller proprietors elsewhere, and the average size of farms is bigger, too. The smallholdings which are such a feature of life on the Continent and (as a result of land reform under British rule) in Ireland both north and south, are in Great Britain the exception rather than the rule.
On hauling in this disquieting data, the instinctive reaction of the left is to reach for a new tax to put matters right. Following in the footsteps of Henry George, by then already well trodden, David Lloyd George in his People’s Budget of 1909 proposed not one but two taxes: a penny in the pound on the capital value of all undeveloped urban and suburban land, and a tax of 20 per cent on any unearned increment in land values resulting from a public decision or development. Philip Snowden, in his 1931 Budget, brought in a similar tax of a penny in the pound on land values. And almost every time Labour has got in since the war, it has introduced a tax on the profits of land development, in 1947, 1967 and 1976.
All these imposts have perished ignominiously. But that has not prevented Labour and Liberal Democrat enthusiasts from demanding that the Blair government should also have a go. All five contributors so far to the NS Land Campaign, like Marion Shoard in her trailblazing This Land Is Our Land (1987), want some sort of land tax to foster their objectives of providing more homes for the worst-off, reducing social inequality and improving the countryside.
These may all be desirable objectives, but is a land tax the way to achieve them? Why should taxation and state control prove to be the solution here when they proved so counter-productive elsewhere? When God gave the land to the people, did He just mean, in His usual careless way, to give it to the government?
Not for the first time, I lament that the British left is so dog- gedly collectivist and so little distributist. If, instead, we made it our first priority to spread the ownership of land rather than to sting the landowners, then we might adopt a somewhat different approach.
What is it that at present deters Lord Scattercash from disposing of his land to the lower orders? It is certainly not that he is wallowing in the unthinking opulence of his grandfathers. On the contrary, he feels himself to be strapped for cash to repair the roof on Scattercash Hall, to pay his children’s soaring school fees and to meet his account at Ladbrokes. The Home Farm has not made a profit for years. The dower house and the estate cottages, which could otherwise be turned into easy money, are mostly occupied by his indigent and resentful relations. There is nothing he would like better than to sell a field or two to smallholders and bungalow-builders, or for gravel extraction or industrial workshops or a pitch-and-putt course or an al-Qaeda training camp.
That he does none of these things is not because of his sense of noblesse oblige towards his heritage, nor because there is any shortage of willing purchasers. It is simply and solely because, in most of the above cases, there would not be a cat in hell’s chance of getting planning permission.
It is the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, one of the last great monuments of the Attlee era, which freezes the landscape and pushes up the price of land for building by restricting its supply. The reason the act endures is because its suffocating blanket is as comforting to Tory Nimbys as it is to Labour control freaks. Yet the social consequences are enormous. As land prices rise to stratospheric levels, so the price of new housing soars, accelerated by the rising cost of building regulations. It is reckoned that, in the south-east, the cost of the site accounts for 40 per cent of the house price. And house prices have risen from the long-term average of three and a half times a person’s annual income to nearly five times. Not surprisingly, the number of dwellings built each year has dwindled from well over 300,000 in the 1960s and 1970s to less than 200,000 in the 1990s, while the population has risen by several million.
Just how hard the present restrictions chafe against our natural impulses is shown by a bizarre new fashion. In several southern counties – Hertfordshire, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire and Suffolk – developers have bought farmland from despairing farmers, divided the fields into plots ranging from half an acre to five acres, and then sold them on to individuals willing to pay as much as £35,000 an acre. Most of the land is in the green belt, and carries no planning permission and little prospect of any. Yet city-dwellers are snapping the plots up, placing a long-term bet on some change in the law.
These initiatives are regarded as the work of the devil by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and most local councils. Yet I have sympathy for these speculators and hope that one day they will come to be regarded as admirable pioneers. Not simply does small-plot landscape offer opportunities for self-expression to people who are not well off, as the plotlands movement did until the 1947 act killed it off: it keeps the land in better heart, as John Seymour, the father of the self-sufficiency movement, pointed out so eloquently.
In my book Mind the Gap, I threw out a few suggestions for loosening the planning rules, spreading land ownership and giving the worst-off a chance of having a stake in the country. Every landowner could, for example, be allowed to sell off 10 per cent of his land for any purpose up to a maximum of ten acres. (The planning authority would have the right to decide which acres he could sell, and there would be no such right in national parks or other protected areas.) Again, every village or town should be allowed to set up plotlands on low-grade farmland or brown land, to be leased out at low rents to local residents to do whatever they fancied: build a house; set up a workshop; keep a caravan; plant an orchard; grow vines.
One or two horrified critics denounced these ideas as “Romantic”, “impractical” and “almost surreal”. This is the last thing they are. On the contrary, it is the land-taxers who retain a Romantic belief, against most historical experience, in the beneficent properties of taxation and state control. My proposals are literally down to earth. There is absolutely no doubt that, without any compulsion or state interference, the increase in the potential supply of land would bring down land prices with a bump, and hence house prices, too. Urban landowners would no longer be tempted to hang on to their land in the hope of higher prices. In fact, they would have every incentive to hasten to develop, for fear that prices might fall further. There would be no need either for elaborate government schemes, such as the plans for £60,000 starter homes on publicly owned land announced by John Pres-cott on 26 September, which were so complicated that he had to admit that the details had not yet been worked out.
The truth is that any such loosenings in the planning system would be resisted with the utmost ferocity, not because they would be impractical, but because they would be so damnably practical. Those opposed to such changes would be driven by the fear that, after five or ten years of a looser planning regime, parts of the country might be changed utterly.
But would they be changed for the worse? Is a small-plot landscape any less aesthetically pleasing than a panorama of featureless, 20-acre fields? Does a vision of orchards and allotments and chalets not have its own very English allure? From Constable to Stanley Spencer and beyond, a horticultural intimism is our national style. Look at the magical, higgledy-piggledy realm of Eel Pie Island, or think of those networks of market gardens, fishing ponds and holiday homes that you find in north-eastern France.
Our tastes do change over time. Already we have learned to love the garden suburb and we are developing a soft spot for the bungalow. Today, when we stand under the great portico at Kedleston Hall and look out over the famed view, we wonder whether it might not have looked even better – warmer, more full of incident, more human – if Robert Adam had not swept away the old village that used to stand in the middle distance. Would the National Trust now not consider that 18th-century hamlet just as worthy of preservation? And isn’t there something wrong with a People’s Party that is so leery of a landscape with figures?
Mind the Gap is published by Short Books (£14.99)