The land under your feet

Submitted by AWL on 22 September, 2015 - 5:20 Author: John Cunningham

“We live on a small, overcrowded island”, is a common enough refrain whether the subject under discussion is housing, road building, airport expansion or the arrival of refugees. As this book reveals this is a myth, partly perpetuated by those with a vested interest in maintaining their privileges and elite position with regard to the land.

The UK is not, as “emotionally claimed” by some, being “concreted over”, in fact only 6% of the UK is urbanised. What agitates the author and I hope his readers, is not so much the question of urban spread but who owns the land underneath the buildings, the moorlands, the meadows and pastures and so on? How is this land utilised? How are landowners held accountable? How much tax do they pay? Or, more to the point how much do they avoid?

For those readers who know little about the land this is a book you should read. Its slim 110 pages are packed with information — and revelations — about land ownership and finance in the UK.

Author and journalist Peter Hetherington, travels far and wide, from the fields of Kent to the Scottish Highlands and reveals a disturbing picture of land ownership that is hideously skewed in favour of the “landed gentry” and speculators. They pay little tax and exploit many loopholes such as the inheritance tax avoidance, they don’t actually work the land, they wield enormous power and influence within the power structures of the UK and are almost totally unaccountable.

The biggest private landowner in the UK is the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry who owns 240,000 acres mainly in Scotland, just across the border, his cousin, the Duke of Northumberland owns 130,000 acres. And the Royal family directly owns 257,000 acres (this doesn’t include the Crown Estate which is semi-state owned and consists of 343,000 acres). These huge areas of land earn them millions every year. More recently the Royals and well-established aristo’s have been joined by “arrivistes” such as Danish textile billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen and of even more recent vintage swathes of land are now being bought by speculators operating via offshore banks in Bermuda, Jersey, Isle of Man and so on.

Hetherington poses the question: “do we use land for the benefit of all our citizens or for a privileged few”? As you read on the answer becomes obvious.

Currently land prices are astronomical — between 2004 and 2014 the average price for arable land in England rose by 277% while the cost of other land (inner-city, suburban etc.) is comparable. This is one of the main reasons why house prices are so high, making it virtually impossible to buy a house unless you are well-heeled or can scrape together a crippling mortgage which may take a lifetime to pay off.

Land is a unique commodity, you can’t “manufacture it” (land reclamation schemes such as those in Holland have only a local impact), but you can just “sit” on it and do nothing while the value skyrockets. No-one, except wealthy landowners and speculators, benefits from this.

In Scotland, where land ownership has not changed substantially since the Highland Clearances, the situation is different from the rest of the UK. As part of its electoral programme and donning its “social democratic” hat, the SNP has pledged to introduce land reform. It will become easier for communities to buy land on big estates and tenant farmers will be able to buy their farms on favourable terms. These and other changes are welcome but hardly the revolution some have hailed it as. Nicola Sturgeon has said that responsible landowners should be “valued and respected”, which suggest a mild tinkering with the issues rather a robust head-on assault.

South of the border however, the government seems to see land and land ownership as a utopia of laissez faire and has almost totally abandoned the idea of intervention or planning: various regional and national “quangos” have been scrapped, the post of rural advocate has gone, our National Parks are being starved of finance, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is being sidelined and only recently the government tried (but fortunately failed) to privatise the Forestry Commission.

Hetherington finishes his book by calling for an informed debate about the fate of rural Britain, for planning ahead and the establishment of an agency that will develop an active land policy.

This is all well and good but the detail (in contrast to the rest of the book) is a bit thin. Specifically, he doesn’t raise the question of a Land Value Tax (a tax on the unimproved value of land to be paid by the landowner) which would be a major restraint on land speculation as well as providing much needed funding for rural development. A Land Value Tax can trace its ancestry back to the American reformer Henry George and is supported by the Green Party, some Lib-Dems and has supporters in the Labour Party including Andy Burnham. Nor is it some pie-in-the-sky fantasy, in certain parts of the world e.g. New South Wales, Australia, a Land Value Tax is in operation. Some discussion of this tax and its implications would have helped raise the book beyond the limitations of journalistic exposé (in which it actually does a first class job).

The other missing element is how to break the power of the landowning elite. At times Hetherington seems to buy into the idea that really landowners are “decent chaps” and there are just a few “bad apples” spoiling it for everyone else. This simply won’t do.

When introducing her Scottish land reforms Nicola Sturgeon remarked that she was “not waging class war”; well, it’s about time somebody did.

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