In Who Owns England, Guy Shrubsole describes how his campaigning interests – from environmental damage on agricultural land to housing shortages in London – led him to wonder who owns the land in England. Getting an answer proved difficult which made him all the more determined to pursue the subject. He and data journalist Anna Powell-Smith have detailed their research on the Who Owns England blog and he expands on the subject in this book.
He begins with the historical context and the Domesday Book, in which William the Conqueror compiled an inventory of the country he had conquered. Significant land holdings were giving to those who had helped him achieve power and their heirs.
Shrubsole estimates that 30% of all England’s land is still owned by the aristocracy and gentry. The 6th Duke of Westminster at least had the grace to admit that he hadn’t become Britain’s biggest landowner by the sweat of his brow. When asked what advice he would give to young entrepreneurs, the billionaire said, “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror”. When he died he passed his entire estate to his then 25-year-old son who is currently the subject of a campaign by activists:
Please help us save our homes. The Duke of Westminster, the richest man under 30 in the world, wants to demolish the Cundy Street Flats and Walden House to build a new luxury development. This is about profits before people.
— SaveCundyStreetAndWaldenHouse (@SaveCundyWalden) August 2, 2019
Shrubsole’s analysis shows how land that has been taken over generations, by conquest, by forced enclosure, by repression, continues to be protected by complicit (or cowed) governments, and that, despite the public perception that the gentry has fallen into decay and handed it all over to the National Trust, many of them are doing very nicely.
Then there is publicly owned land, which could be used for the public good, but is being steadily sold off, either by a central government with an ideological agenda, or local authorities desperate for cash. There are the landownings of the royal family and the Crown and the church. There is land owned by wealthy individuals and corporations, including pension funds.
Land is a uniquely valuable asset. Shrubsole quotes Mark Twain: “they aren’t making it any more”. Landowners can also experience gains in value through the action of others — for example if new transport infrastructure is built nearby. However, these qualities are not recognised in the tax system. Instead, landowners receive additional benefits.
Many receive agricultural subsidies which are paid simply for owning land (including environmentally damaging grouse moors), with no obligation to benefit taxpayers or the environment. They can use trusts and offshore ownership arrangements to avoid taxation or scrutiny (sometimes while also receiving subsidies). Properties in high-demand areas such as central London are left empty, treated as ‘investments’, and complicated ownership arrangements mean they may be bought with laundered money.
There is an impressive amount of research and information in Who Owns England, presented in an accessible way. Shrubsole gives an insight into the work that he and others have done to unearth this knowledge, and explains what they have been unable to find out.
He brings the material alive with examples and anecdotes, beginning with his childhood memories of West Berkshire, an apparently affluent, leafy county, but one riven by divisions by the Greenham Common airbase, and the Newbury bypass. Both spurred iconic protests and both are, in a sense, about land and who owns and controls it. Newbury MP and former environment minister Richard Benyon is also a wealthy landowner.
It’s easy to despair but what I love about this book is that Shrubsole is angry but also positive and determined. His final chapter is an agenda for English land reform, a series of proposals to make land ownership more open, fair, and widely distributed.
Want to know more? Guy Shrubsole was one of the authors of Land for the Many, an independent report on land reform commissioned by the Labour Party.