Britain faces all kinds of problems as it accelerates into the 21st century, and one of the oldest and most neglected is land ownership. Britain never reformed and swept away the old feudal system the way some of our European neighbours did. We just layered some democracy on top and hoped for the best. We still have a royal family. There are still hereditary peers in the House of Lords – people who get to vote on British laws, for life, because they were born into it. And the landed gentry is alive and well.
In medieval times, 50% of Britain’s land was commons, held in communal ownership and with all sorts of usage rights for ordinary people. Successive kings and governments privatised it, often fencing it off for grazing sheep. Kings took bits of it for hunting, or gave new estates to their favourites. Today 5% of land is commons, and that slow theft from ordinary people has never been addressed.
To take one example, Britain’s largest private landowner today is the Duke of Buccleuch. He inherited 277,000 acres because, ten generations ago, King Charles II granted land holdings to an illegitimate son. Nothing personal against the Duke, whoever he is, but do we have to consider these things fixed for all time? Isn’t there some fair and democratic way to rebalance Britain’s land ownership?
The Labour party has been looking into this recently, and produced a research report called Land for the Many. It’s the first time I can remember a British political institution spell out the problem or try to formulate any solutions, and so it’s worth a look.
It’s particularly important now, when housing is such a critical issue. House prices have been out of control in Britain for twenty years, leaving younger generations priced out. Those who have a home can use it to buy a second to rent out, while those on lower incomes can’t afford to save up a deposit. This is a major driver of inequality in Britain. If we want to solve the issue of housing or make a dent in inequality, we have to talk about land.
There are dozens of proposals in the report, some of them to do with land law and technicalities, but here are a few highlights:
- One of the first issues to tackle is transparency. It has been over a hundred years since there was an official audit of land ownership. We don’t know who owns what, and sometimes the real owner of land can be obscured in offshore territories for tax purposes. So a first step is to open the data.
- The creation of a Common Ground Trust, which would buy the land under a house in order to bring the price down for first time buyers. The land would then be held in trust, with residents paying a ground rent.
- A major drive to build and provide more social housing. This should be built on existing public land where possible, and the sale of land to fund local government services should be paused.
- Replace council tax with a progressive property tax, with higher rates for second homes or empty homes.
- Business rates could be replaced by a Land Value Tax.
- Encourage community planning for new developments. I’ve written about this here and would love to see more of it.
- The right to roam across uncultivated land and water. This already exists in Scotland.
None of this is policy yet. They are proposals to the party, and they will be discussed ahead of the next election. Some of them may get into the manifesto, we shall see. For now, it’s just great to see such a comprehensive set of ideas on land up for debate.