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Leader: Land reform remains one of the great progressive causes

The government needs to be much more rigorous about taxing wealth and static assets.

The coalition government has listened to those who were opposed to its new planning guidelines for England and has amended them in a way that should appease many of those who were fearful that the bulldozers were poised to rip up swaths of our loveliest countryside. Among those opposed to the draft proposals were the National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Daily Telegraph, which ran the "Hands off our land" campaign.

The New Statesman supports the government in its attempt to reform our planning laws and to confirm the "primacy" of development. This country has a desperate shortage of housing, especially so-called affordable housing, and it is correct that we seek to build on existing "brownfield" sites in towns and villages as well as create new towns, as happened after the Second World War. It is correct, too, that the government has recognised the "intrinsic" beauty of the English countryside - that, in effect, it is an end in itself, not a means to an end - and that there should be a "presumption in favour of sustainable development", whatever that means. (No doubt the lawyers will be busy disputing the matter.)

So far, so good. However, the larger problem, unacknowledged by the government and indeed the Labour Party, is the profoundly uneven distribution of land ownership in Britain. It is often assumed that England in particular is already overdeveloped and that very soon our green and pleasant land will be covered in concrete.

That is nonsense. Only 10 per cent of England (and 6 per cent of Britain) is developed. The myth spun about Britain is that land is scarce. It is not - landowners are paid to keep it off the market through a system of agricultural subsidy. What Britain suffers from, especially in the south-east of England, is a shortage of land on which housing can be built. As a result, the urban plot becomes ever more congested, land values and property prices continue to rise - because scarcity of land attracts a premium value - and our young people, many of them debt-burdened from their university years or struggling to find work, cannot afford to buy their first home.

The UK is 60 million acres in size, of which 41 million are designated "agricultural" land, 15 million are "natural wast­age" (forests, rivers, mountains and so on) and owned by institutions such as the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence, and four million are the "urban plot", the densely congested land on which most of the 62 million people of these islands live. In sum, 69 per cent of the acreage of Britain is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. More pertinently, 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land, while 24 million families live on the four million acres of the urban plot.

The wealthiest landowner is the Duke of Westminster, who through luck and a quirk of ancestral good fortune owns hundreds of acres of prime real estate and land in Belgravia and Mayfair. He relentlessly exploits his good fortune.

Worse still is that the owners of as much as 30 per cent of the land of England and Wales are, in effect, unknown, because there is no legal obligation to register the ownership of land; Her Majesty's Land Registry has not carried out a cadastral survey of Britain. These "unregistered" owners also receive annual subsidies on their "agricultural" acres.

The government needs to be much more rigorous about taxing wealth and static assets, especially property and land, to challenge the extreme concentration of wealth in Britain. It is right that more land is developed and more houses built; but true and lasting land reform remains one of the great potential progressive causes.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy