Four years ago I asked a simple question about our most basic resource that feeds, waters and houses the nation, while providing energy, timber, recreation for millions and much else besides. Why don’t we, governments and individuals, value our land – for it surely is ours, morally if not legally – beyond the obscene monetary gain for the rich and powerful to exploit it as a valuable commodity to be bought, sold and used as a handy place to dump spare cash and avoid inheritance or capital gains tax?
Governments have become so obsessed with the whims of the “free market” that in England (but not, significantly, in Scotland) we seem locked in a cycle of despair, a “why bother?” mentality that precludes any intervention in the interests of all the people, assuming we even consider the pressures on this valuable resource and the estimated 2m hectares of public land sold off since the 1970s – valuable holdings in our postwar new towns, NHS sites, rich farmland owned by cash-strapped county councils and the rest.
It wasn’t always so. From the progressive reforms of Lloyd George in the early 20th century – squeezing the rich, creating state forests and providing thousands of smallholdings for the landless as well as those council farms – land reform was high on the agenda of earlier governments. Labour even pledged to work towards the public ownership of land, with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, “nationalising” the right to develop land, seen as a precursor. Of course, it never happened: the powerful farming lobby saw to that and nobbled the Attlee government. Still, we did get a string of national parks and 15,000-plus miles of footpaths, legally underpinned – although those rights of way are now sadly neglected, while austerity has seen national park budgets cut to the bone.
So, amid such collective indifference, it should come as no surprise that half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population, with 25,000 landowners controlling half the country – particularly when the people owning the big landed estates, family trusts of the old aristocracy, have often morphed from farming landlords into development enterprises, at home and abroad. Overall, perhaps a third of our land is still in the hands of the aristocracy: equating to perhaps 36,000 people owning half the rural land in England alone.
Researching my book, Whose Land is Our Land? The Use and Abuse of Britain’s Forgotten Acres, involved interviewing a string of landowners – the old aristocracy and relative newcomers, such as the immensely powerful National Trust – and asking a simple question: how can you justify sitting on such extensive land holdings which can make the family firm de facto planning authorities in their own right?
Thus, sitting opposite an amiable Ralph George Algernon Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, in the kitchen of the family quarters of a magnificent, medieval Alnwick Castle, the reply was thoughtful: “In the days when coal provided big revenues, it was a pretty powerful estate. It did dominate the area, rather less so now (but) I would like to think that democracy has curbed us,” he volunteered.
Call it modesty, or understatement, but Northumberland Estates, the family firm, still exercises considerable power in its home county, with around 130,000 acres overall, including a chunk of Surrey, a bit of the Scottish borders and grounds around Syon House in west London.
In Scotland, however, modest land reform is alarming the old aristocracy. Richard Scott, Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, with 240,000 acres under the belt of the family firm – including 11,000 acres in Northamptonshire – spoke of his frustration and anger at his perception of the heavy hand of the Holyrood government. “What is the point of hanging on to it all and being shot by the left for your pains?” he asked plaintively while predicting that perhaps a third of Buccleuch Estates’ Scottish holdings could be sold.
As things stand, there’s little chance of England following reformist Scotland with its (Inverness-based) land commission now examining ownership, the reintroduction of business rates on sporting estates and the ambition of doubling community land ownership – considerable in areas such as the Western Isles – to one million acres by 2020.
But is it too much to ask the (English) Department of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs in a new government – forget this one – to invoke some of the radicalism of Lloyd George 100 years ago? It should begin with a new charter for land, and set out rights and responsibilities while addressing the key to beginning full-scale reform: ending the inheritance and capital gains tax breaks which make trading land so attractive to the few at the expense of the many.
• Peter Hetherington writes on communities and regeneration