Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Will we finally know who owns England and Wales?

This is a slightly revised - and unpublished - article I wrote for Landworker magazine in April this year. 

The rallying cry of those who campaigned to leave the EU was “give us our country back.” That's difficult as we don’t actually know the owners. There is good news though as we may finally soon have a list of all the landowners in England and Wales. 

Back in 1862 and 1875, attempts to start a land registry were crushed by the large landowners refusing to register their property. When a Land Act was passed in 1925 it allowed land that had been gifted or inherited to be left unrecorded. Large landowners who could trace their family history back generations didn't bother registering their land. 

It was not until 2001 - and the release of Kevin Cahill's Who Owns Britain colossal book, which revealed that 189,000 people owned 88 per cent of the land — that the question of land ownership in the UK was re-opened. 

In Scotland since then the issue of land reform has been high on the political agenda. Less so in England and Wales but the last Labour Government's Land Registration Act 2002 did introduce a voluntary registration scheme that has proven to be highly successful as it has led to land registration levels doubling to over 80 percent in the last fifteen years. Even the Duke of Westminster was persuaded to register and his 140,000 acres was inherited last year by his son. 

In February the Housing White Paper was released. To the surprise of many the proposals included a much more open Land Registry - which was only saved last summer from being privatised thanks to a campaign in which trade unions were prominent — working with the Ordnance Survey to 'provide a more effective digital land and property data service...that can be made more openly available to the benefit of developers, home buyers and others.' 

There was also a commitment by 'the Government to ensure completion of the Land Register…with the aim being to achieve comprehensive registration by 2030.' However, individuals such as the Duke of Westminster and Prince Charles will remain exempt from registering. A precedent has though been established and it paves the way for a future government to tighten up the regulations.

Meanwhile, Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth who deservedly describes himself as a "troublemaker," has established a fascinating blog - WHO OWNS ENGLAND - that follows in Cahill's footsteps. Cahill listed landowners, Shrubsole aims to map them. 

The author wants to "build the most comprehensive public map of land ownership in England: a modern Domesday book." Shrubsole has made a fine start with revelations that 50 companies own 1.3 million acres of England and Wales. The 50 include housebuilders Taylor Wimpey and supermarket giant Tesco. Nine water companies own 345,977 acres. 

Grouse moors cover at least 550,000 acres of England. Thirty huge estates, which enjoy public farm subsidies and some of which are owned offshore, cover at least 300,000 acres. 

The author is set to reveal over the following year who owns the land most sought-after for house building and the best-quality agricultural land plus what the Royals Own. 

Land is a scarce resource and no more is being grown. Once we do know who owns England and Wales then surely it is time to get everyone involved in getting to choose how it is used to grow our food, build houses, create employment and provide space for relaxation, recreation and wildlife? That really would be ‘getting our country back.’ 

A booklet I edited, partly wrote and published over a decade ago. 

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