SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 230 July-August 2019

The landowning establishment

Who Owns England? How we lost our green & pleasant land & how to take it back

By Guy Shrubsole, Published by William Collins, 2019, £20

The New Enclosure: the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain

By Brett Christophers, Published by Verso, 2018, £20

Land privatisation, the largest neoliberal grab in Britain since Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979, has scarcely been debated. Also shrouded in secrecy is who actually owns a lot of it. Now two new books, reviewed here by PAUL KERSHAW, and recent Labour Party statements are helping to put these important issues on the agenda.

Who Owns England? How we lost our green & pleasant land & how to take it back By Guy Shrubsole, Published by William Collins, 2019, £20 The New Enclosure: the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain By Brett Christophers, Published by Verso, 2018, £20

Over the last 40 years a startling 10% of Britain’s land mass has been sold off by the state. In his book, The New Enclosure, Brett Christophers estimates conservatively that this amounts to a £400 billion privatisation. That dwarfs the other big privatisations, such as housing, railways or utilities, and represents more than twelve times the value of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The sale of land continues and, Christophers suggests, may be speeding up.

All types of public land have been targeted, including that held by local and central government. While disposals have generally been more rapid under Tory and Tory-led administrations, they are not the only ones at it. NHS land, for example, was a particular target under New Labour as a result of the pressure of the ‘internal market’ on health trusts. The NHS ‘estate’, estimated at around 50,000 hectares in 1982, has shrunk by over 70% to 6,500 hectares today. Some health trusts have to buy back land on the open market in order to build new hospitals.

In another new book, Who Owns England?, Guy Shrubsole investigates what he describes as England’s darkest secret, using computer mapping, dogged investigation and the occasional helpful leak. It is amazingly difficult to identify landowners in England and, he writes, “there’s a reason for that: concealing wealth is part and parcel of preserving it”. Shrubsole says that most people have little idea how unequal land ownership is, but just 5% of England’s land is owned by ordinary householders. Meanwhile, “a few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together”. No doubt for similar reasons, public bodies have been very poor at recording what land they have disposed of.

In 2016, the Tories attempted to privatise the Land Registry, the public body responsible for keeping a database of land and property in England and Wales. If carried through this would have made information even more difficult to access. The PCS union fought a strong campaign against the plan and groups representing capital also expressed concern that the registry’s role could be undermined. The proposals were dropped. Incredibly, not even the police are allowed to access its records without the owner’s permission, clearly hindering investigations into corruption and money laundering.

The rich and powerful

Painstaking research reveals that half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population. Shrubsole estimates that aristocrats and gentry still own around 30% of the land. This could well be an underestimate as the owners of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at the Land Registry. These are most likely to be aristocrats as many of their estates have remained in their families for centuries. They have not been sold on the open market so their ownership does not need to be registered. There is no mandatory and centralised registration of title as there is in some capitalist countries. An estimated 18% of England is owned by corporations, some based overseas or in offshore jurisdictions for tax reasons.

Shrubsole’s book is full of anecdotes revealing how he became obsessed with this issue. He describes how, as a ten-year-old in 1996 growing up in Newbury, eco-warrior protests at the building of the town’s bypass became national news. He joined a march over threatened land with his parents. They kept some beehives in the woodland of the vast Sutton estate through which the bypass would run; the landlord failed to put up a fight to protect it. He saw how the bee population was threatened, not only by motorways but also by the pesticides produced at the local Bayer plant. He came to reject the idea that ancient barons were reliable custodians of the countryside.

His later research revealed that 44% of west Berkshire (the county in which Newbury is located) is owned by just 30 individuals and organisations. The biggest single west Berkshire landowner is Tory MP Richard Beynon, the inheritor of the 12,000-acre Englefield estate, in his family since the 18th century. His fortune is estimated at £110 million, part of which comes from the 19th century development of De Beauvoir Town in Hackney, east London. In 2014, his company attracted publicity when it bought a share in the New Era estate in Hoxton and tried to jack up the social level rents with the potential to make current tenants homeless. A big campaign involving local residents, trade unions, the Socialist Party and comedian Russell Brand pushed back these proposals, but age-old privilege and power relations were laid bare.

Shrubsole visits a site in Surrey that Gerrard Winstanley, the radical leader of the Diggers and advocate of land reform during the English revolution, sought to claim as common land in the 1640s. It is now the site of very private executive homes.

He researches the secretive web of The Peel Group, involved in infrastructure, transport and real estate, tracing how it influences urban planning and development decisions for profit. For example, Peel acquired the Manchester Ship Canal when it was privatised in 1987. In 2008, it emerged as the dominant force behind a business grouping that successfully lobbied against the proposal for a Greater Manchester congestion charge. As owners of the out-of-town Trafford Centre it feared the charge would lose it customers who had to drive through the city. In that case there was a public vote. Most of the time, The Peel Group exerts influence with far less visibility.

We get vivid insights into the lives of the super-rich and their property. Shrubsole visits 41 Grosvenor Street in Mayfair, a dusty, empty mansion bought for a staggering £28.5 million in 2007 by Timur Kulibayev, son-in-law of the then president of Kazakhstan. Council figures show that 60,000 homes around the country have stood empty for over two years.

He estimates that Kensington and Chelsea, the borough where the Grenfell Tower disaster took place in June 2017 leaving 72 dead and hundreds homeless, had over 1,500 empty homes in that year. Many are rumoured to be on the Cadogan estate, dubbed the ‘ghost town of the super-rich’. With an estimated wealth of £6.5 billion, Lord Cadogan’s ludicrous family motto is, ‘He who envies is the lesser man’. The GMB union calculated that, in 2014 alone, the estate received £116,000 in housing benefit from less well-off tenants.

Land speculation

The pattern of land ownership in Britain was not established peacefully. The Norman conquest of 1066 established the system of property rights recorded in the Doomsday Book. The dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41 resulted in land being parcelled out to favourites of Henry VIII. The brutal, enforced enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries took vital land rights from the rural poor to the benefit of landowners, forcing millions of people into the cities where they had to sell their labour, laying the basis for the rise of industrial capitalism. Not for nothing did Karl Marx speak of capitalism arising “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. The dynasties established through these processes still dominate land ownership in Britain.

Enclosure was justified with talk of ‘waste land’ to describe commons. Christophers points out that comparable language of ‘surplus land’ is used today when defending sell-offs. Moreover, there has been no serious assessment by official bodies of the effects of the sell-off. In truth, if we saw primitive accumulation by theft during the rise of capitalism, we are now seeing accumulation by dispossession. Of course, once the land is sold it will only be used to meet community needs if a profit can be made.

The claim that selling land increases the supply of affordable housing is not borne out by evidence. Christophers writes: “The private sector does not lack land; and nor, more significantly, does it lack land that is suitable for commercial development, or for which planning permission has been granted”. A recent report from the New Economics Foundation found that, in 2017-18, just 5% of homes built on ex-NHS land will be genuinely affordable, and the average sale price is expected to be 9.6 times the annual salary of a nurse.

He argues that this ‘new enclosure’ has been accompanied by the emergence of a new form of ‘financialised’ land ownership. Rather than being regarded, primarily, as a source of income from rent, for productive activities or the provision of housing, institutions such as banks, insurance companies and pension funds come to regard land mainly as a financial asset. It is seen as collateral, or is bought and sold for speculative gain. For example, its value can rise massively if planning permission is granted.

Parasitical landowners

Ideas about land ownership have changed over the years, as Christophers’ more theoretical book outlines. He quotes Edward Stanley, the 15th Earl of Derby, speaking in 1881 as one of Britain’s largest landowners: “The object which men aim at when they become possessed of land in the British Isles may, I think, be enumerated as follows. One, political influence; two, social importance founded on territorial possession, the most visible and unmistakable form of wealth; three, power exercised over tenancy; the pleasure of managing, directing and improving the estate itself; four, residential enjoyment, including what is called sport; five, the money return – the rent”. In the authentic voice of privilege, here is a succinct summary of why land ownership matters.

Christophers cites Marx, who explained that in 19th century England landed property had ‘cast off’ its feudal character and was aiming to make as much money as possible through rent. Rent is not an abstract price, however. Contrary to the picture in economics textbooks, it reflects class struggle and power relations. As Christophers puts it, rent is a “worldly, messy, negotiated outcome”. He quotes Marx: “The rent of land is established as a result of the struggle between tenant and landlord”. (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

Economic ideas have shifted with the changing class forces. The classical economists of the 19th century took a much more critical position, reflecting the conflict between the rising capitalist class and landowners at the time. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others saw landlords as essentially parasitical. Rent creams off a share of surplus value from industrial capital, so the antipathy to landlordism was no mystery.

Marx advanced two reasons for the toleration of landlordism by capital: the fear that an attack on landed property would cast doubt on the sanctity of private property generally (ie the private ownership of the means of production); and the extent to which the capitalists become landowners, abolishing the distinction. Nonetheless, the demand for land nationalisation expressed the fullest development of capitalism in its more dynamic phase.

Christophers quotes Lenin’s criticism of the 19th century Narodniks to underline the point: “The Narodnik thinks that repudiation of private property is repudiation of capitalism. That is wrong. The repudiation of private land ownership expresses the demands for the purest capitalist development. And we have to revive in the minds of Marxists the ‘forgotten words’ of Marx, who criticised private ownership from the point of view of the conditions of capitalist economy”. (The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907)

Land nationalisation has come be seen as an ‘almost inconceivable’ and radical idea but this was not always so. Unfortunately, although Christophers and Shrubsole record this, neither puts a case to put it back on the agenda.

Even in the early 20th century some capitalist representatives continued to rail against the iniquities of landlordism: “Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains – and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived”. This reads like an analysis of the gains to landowners from modern regeneration schemes. It is, in fact, from Winston Churchill in 1909, at the time of the Liberal ‘people’s budget’, quoted by Christophers.

Given the interlinking of finance, big capital and landownership it is no surprise that denunciations of landlordism have become rare in capitalist circles. This reflects the rottenness of contemporary capitalism. However, the inflation of land values and the impact of the housing crisis have forced some capitalist commentators to raise the issue again. Writing in 2010, Martin Wolf, chief economic commentator of the Financial Times, wrote that the value of his London house had risen ten times since he had bought it in 1984: “All of that vast increment is the fruit of no efforts of mine. It is the reward of owning a location that the efforts of others made available”.

Big-business land banks

Brett Christophers and Guy Shrubsole argue that Britain’s acute housing crisis is fundamentally a land crisis. The real cost of a house is not just the bricks and mortar, but the land it stands on, and land prices have rocketed up by 400% since 1995. Taking a longer view, Christophers says land accounted for just 2% of the price of residential property in the 1930s, while now it is closer to 70%. The extent of asset-price inflation is breathtaking.

Recent changes to the way the Office for National Statistics presents figures reveal the staggering fact that land now accounts for over half of UK net worth (over £5 trillion). Buildings on land were valued at £3.5 trillion, roughly equally divided between residential and non-residential property. All other forms of wealth total just £1.26 trillion or 13% of the total. Christophers observes: “Aside from land and property… there really is not much else of any monetary value in the contemporary United Kingdom, which is a somewhat sobering thought”.

‘Free-market’ politicians blame the planning system for delays in housebuilding, but this does not explain the huge land banks with planning permission held by so-called developers. A report by Grant Thornton UK LLP in May confirmed that, in 2015, 57,496 homes were given planning permission, but three years later – when the permission typically runs out – only 30,819 were under construction or completed. That means that 46% of potential homes with planning permission are not getting built.

The Legal and General financial services group, entirely legally, holds what it calls a “strategic land portfolio… stretching from Luton to Cardiff and comprising 3,550 acres”. Its rationale is simple: “Strategic land holdings are underpinned by their existing use value”, such as farming, “and give us the opportunity to create further value through planning promotion and infrastructure works over the medium to long term”. Shrubsole points out it is nearly all in green belt areas, bought with the aim of lobbying to get the restrictions ripped up. He also doubts there is a special dastardly class of speculator: “Rather, the practice of hoarding land awaiting a higher return is something that all landowners do”.

The massive sell-off of publicly-owned land is another key factor inhibiting councils from building cheap housing. A survey of councils by the Royal Town Planning Institute found it was the highest-rated reason for not building. Yet, Christophers points out that commentators did not pick up on the contradiction, in the same 2017 conference speech, between Theresa May’s promise of ‘a new generation of council houses’ and her pledge to ensure that councils release more land to the private sector.

Council-owned farms, which were a way into farming for people without inheritance, have been part of the land sell-off. Moreover, subsidies have been skewed in recent years to support big landowners – agribusiness benefits, small farmers suffer. From 2003, subsidies have been paid on a farm area basis, so the more you own the more you get. Seventeen dukes received £8 million in 2015 and, in the following year, 14 marquises were handed £3.5 million from the taxpayer. That is a key reason for the rise in the value of agricultural land in recent years – a further taxpayer boost for aristocrats.

It is completely inadequate to hope, however, as Shrubsole does, that they will somehow play a role of ‘active stewardship’. He calls for a reformed system of subsidies to provide a spur but then, presumably recognising that this is not enough, says that “it will require the aristocracy’s active participation. Will they rise to such a challenge?”


The Labour Party recently published a report, Land for the Many. One of the authors was Guy Shrubsole and it raises some radical policy demands. The housing charity Shelter has also issued a report calling for land reform. Labour is considering a halt to land privatisation, tax changes, greater transparency, a community participation agency and a community right-to-buy scheme based on the Scottish model.

In addition, there has been talk of capital controls and setting a target for the Bank of England to restrain house prices. Capitalist economist Kate Barker warned: “A house price target is a difficult one for government. It is totally absurd for the Bank of England unless given control of a whole other range of policies”. This points to the danger of a limited programme. Rather than giving yet more power to the Bank of England – made ‘independent’ as one of the earliest acts of Tony Blair’s first government, to the delight of big business – all the main banks and financial institutions should be nationalised and made accountable to the aims of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. So should the huge private estates owned by a tiny number of giant landlords.

These books are part of a revival of radical, class-based ideas, and a decline in those associated with New Labour and neoliberalism. They are thought-provoking and offer many important facts and figures. They can play a part in the debate and, no doubt, will arouse justified anger. While they reflect this process of searching and testing out left-wing ideas, however, they remain programmatically limited, even by comparison to earlier Labour policy, let alone a socialist programme needed to end the rule of capital.

Land has not become any less salient for the socialist transformation of society than it was in 1847 when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels put land nationalisation at the top of the demands in the Communist Manifesto. Even the Labour manifesto of 1945 stipulated that the party believed “in land nationalisation and will work towards it”. The depth of the crisis of British and world capitalism will help put it back on the agenda.

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