England’s new enclosures: why questions of land ownership are entering the political mainstream

The sell-off of UK land is the largest privatisation in European history. So why don’t more people know about it?

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In a famous sitting of the House of Lords, Charles Wood, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, decried the “statements made in certain newspapers, and at some public meetings, respecting the wonderfully small number of landed proprietors in this country”.

The year was 1872, but one imagines that a century-and-a-half later many Lords and other major landowners are of a similar mind. Revelations based on research by author Guy Shrubsole, published yesterday in the Guardian, show that half of English land is still owned by a wonderfully small number (25,000) of proprietors.

The great and the good didn’t like light shone on their exorbitant and exclusive landholdings in the 1870s (the vast majority of the top 100 landowners at the time also happened to be members of the House of Lords). And they don’t like it any more today.

Politically, the most significant aspect is not Shrubsole’s figures themselves, which are the outstanding product of painstaking and laborious research. Land ownership in England has become less concentrated over time, but has always been highly concentrated compared to most other European countries.

Indeed, there is an uncanny correspondence between the number of owners of half of England today and the number that reportedly owned all of England in 1861 (29,235). And, from a Scottish perspective, patterns of English land ownership look positively egalitarian: half of Scotland’s private land is today held by a remarkable 432 owners.

No, the real political significance of the story lies elsewhere, and is twofold.

First, given the convulsions in the nation’s political economy during the neoliberal era from the 1970s onwards, it is striking just how little patterns of land ownership have actually changed. Research conducted by Doreen Massey and Alejandrina Catalano in the mid-1970s showed that around 60 per cent of Britain was owned by private individuals, 20 per cent by the public sector, and 20 per cent by other institutions (mainly corporations).

If half of the 17 per cent of English land whose ownership is unaccounted for in Shrubsole’s numbers is owned by private individuals, then private individuals still own approximately 60 per cent of land (albeit English rather than British land), half a century later.

The only material shift during those 50 years has been in the locus of institutional ownership – specifically, from the public sector, whose share of the total has halved to just under 10 percent, to the private sector. The primary story in recent history, in other words, is a privatisation story.

Driven by successive administrations in Whitehall gripped by an economic logic that the private sector more efficiently manages public-sector assets, land owned by local authorities and central government bodies, including the NHS, Ministry of Defence and Forestry Commission, has been sold off en masse since the late 1970s to property companies, developers, and financial institutions. The result has been widespread social dislocation.

This constitutes the largest privatisation of a public resource in European history. So we may ask why more people didn’t know about it. This brings me to the second significant aspect of revelations around land ownership: the surprise, or even shock, that many have registered towards Shrubsole’s findings. Why were people so unaware of the UK’s highly concentrated land ownership?

In terms of overall ownership patterns, Shrubsole’s figures broadly tally (public ownership levels aside) with those produced by Massey and Catalano in the 1970s, and more recently by Kevin Cahill, not least in his epic Who Owns Britain.

Commentators today have been quick – and correct – to note the knock-on effects that land ownership has on inequality in Britain, a country where land now accounts for more than half of national net worth. But again this is, or at least should have been, a longstanding concern. As Massey and Catalano pointedly wrote of land in their 1978 book Capital and Land, “no form of wealth [in Britain] is as heavily concentrated in the hands of the richest individuals”. 

So the question is better phrased: why was nobody previously listening? The answer is political: just as Charles Wood and his peers tried to hide the stark realities of English private land ownership from public view in the 1870s, so the political right – the natural home of the landed-property class – has been intent on burying the land question in all its iniquity since assuming power in Britain at the dawn of the neoliberal era.

Wood and co, incidentally, failed in their ambition. 1875 saw the publication of the monumental The Return of Owners of Land, which depicted land ownership in Britain in extraordinary detail; and for the next century the land question – who owned the land, who got to benefit from its development, and so on – was at the very centre of British political debate.

But Margaret Thatcher, one of whose first actions on taking power in 1979 was to withdraw funding from the research institution where Massey and Catalano conducted their pioneering studies of British land ownership, indubitably succeeded in shifting the public’s focus away from land. From the early 1980s, the land question disappeared from view in England and Wales – but not, notably, in land-reforming Scotland – both in politics and the media and also, for the most part, in academia.

It is finally coming more clearly into view, as people begin to realise – or relearn – the centrality of land ownership in the UK not just for economic inequality, but for the very nature of the national polity and society.

Brett Christophers is a professor of geography at Uppsala University and the author of The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain (Verso, 2018).