Land looms large in our identity. Owning land gives power and control, yet who belongs to, or on, the land is deeply contested. So many issues arise from its scarcity. Domestic issues: the lack of affordable housing, the difficulties of making a good living from low‑impact farming, the high cost of a healthy diet. And global ones: climate change, declining social mobility and massive biodiversity loss. These issues and many more come back to how we own land and what we do with it. Land is entangled in our politics, our economics, our environment and our culture.
The idea of an individual being able to own land outright and without being beholden to the surrounding community is a strange one. In Britain, this concept is intertwined with the development of capitalism, commerce and free trade during the 14th and 15th centuries. Individual or corporate land ownership became a practical way of establishing colonies and the exploitation of their resources, yet it also paved the way towards parliamentary democracy and the concept of individual (and collective) rights.
As Andro Linklater put it in his magisterial book Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury, 2014): ‘The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal earth has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history. It has eliminated ancient civilisations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold.’
Land has become a crucial part of the way our current economic system works, even though it is fundamentally different from almost every other commodity. Its restricted supply, coupled with an ever-increasing demand, leads to a dysfunctional marketplace rife with colonialism, annexation, speculation, investment bubbles and hoarding. This economic system sees environmental impacts as ‘externalities’, which have to be dealt with by the community as a whole. An Englishman’s home is his castle, but the fact that the land and homes downstream flood when he cuts down all his trees is considered someone else’s problem.
On a personal level, many people’s homes are their pension plans, and owning property is seen as key to financial stability (as long as values keep rising). Those without the resources to get a ‘foot on the ladder’ are stranded in an increasingly difficult rental market where renters get zero benefit from any increase in the value of the property. Land, rather than property, now makes up more than half of the UK’s net worth. The precarity of our over-inflated housing market means that any proposals to try and correct the value of land are met with cries of dismay from mortgage holders, the lenders and investors who supply and profit from them, and the right‑wing press.
The UK’s land use has always reached far beyond its borders. We may have moved on from a formal empire covering half the globe and providing resources on favourable terms. But we still have a system that imports approximately 50 per cent of the food we eat and externalises the impacts of its production as we enjoy Peruvian asparagus and Moroccan blueberries in the winter.
Land ownership historically entitled people both to vote and stand for election; and the ‘landed’ are still over-represented in parliament. Nearly one third of Tory MPs are landlords (compared with 3 per cent of the general population), and there are still 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords. We have some of the most concentrated land ownership in the world. Guy Shrubsole, in his 2019 book Who Owns England?, states that less than 1 per cent of the population owns half of England. These historic and current connections between land, wealth, power and influence mean that our establishment harbours deep resistance to changes that could bring greater social justice to our land system.
Resistance to established power has often taken the form of land struggles, from the Diggers and the Levellers all the way through to road and airport expansion protests. Even when the state has acted to provide access to land for citizens, for example in the provision of allotments to address poverty, landlessness and urbanisation after the enclosures, it did so in a way that didn’t threaten the interests of landowners, limiting the size of plots to prevent the loss of labour to farmers.
More modern interventions, such as the Localism Act 2011, also don’t address the fundamental issues of land ownership, and in practice often only help those affluent communities where there is plenty of volunteer time and capacity to take over local pubs and shops. The exception here is Scotland, where land reform is explicitly seen as a tool for community empowerment and locally-led economic and social regeneration, and seeks to establish the principle that land ownership brings with it responsibilities as well as rights.
Land is far more than an economic input or a route to political influence, though. The idea of the land, ‘our land’, ‘this green and pleasant land’, is integral to our culture and society. A ‘foot on the housing ladder’ is your key to belonging. Identifying with the ‘invincible green suburbs’, in John Major’s words, is, for some, the key to English identity, while those with family roots in other places, or who don’t share that narrow sense of identity, are derided as citizens of nowhere. The Nazi slogan of ‘blood and soil’ is finding new life amongst alt-right ‘ecofascists’ who believe that going back to ancient geographical roots is the answer to society’s biggest problems, expressed more commonly in the racist exhortation to ‘go home’. These intertwinings of land, power, wealth, identity and belonging are rarely discussed but their impacts are seen on a day-to-day basis and extend across continents and generations. Colonialism extended land ownership by aristocrats and capitalists to overseas territories and displaced indigenous populations, while migrants arriving to these shores found and still find themselves locked out of a concentrated system of ownership and denied the identity of belonging.Land is a system – and an ecosystem – and so we need to think about it systematically
More recently, land grabs by corporations in the newly liberalised economies of eastern Europe have created a new generation of migrants, pushed off the land at home and seeking seasonal land work across the EU. More positively, land rights are increasingly used as a tool by which indigenous and historically ‘landless’ people can gain power and leverage against the private interests of companies extracting resources such as timber, minerals or water.
So, land is inherently political, intrinsically tied to power, and embedded deep in both our economic system and our sense of identity. The way we own and make decisions about land is so entwined in our systems that it can feel inevitable and out of our control. It is so big and interconnected it is almost invisible. However, all of these ways of thinking about land are contingent and culturally specific. They have been created by people and can therefore be changed.
At Shared Assets (see footnote) we believe that there are two alternative ways of thinking about land that can break us out of these framings and help us to rebuild a healthier, more replenishing relationship between people and the land.
The first thing is that land is a common good – a ‘common treasury’ as the Diggers had it – even when it is privately owned. Nothing we do on land is neutral. Legal ownership boundaries do not contain the consequences of our actions on the land, and the fruits of the land are shared by everyone in the form of carbon capture, healthy ecosystems and flood resilience. Common resources need careful governance and management, and they need people to take responsibility for them. But this starting point, that land is a public good, is radically different to the current one of it being a private commodity.
The second thing is that land is a system (and an ecosystem) and we therefore need to think about it systemically. Our current structures are deeply siloed and can only look at land from one angle at a time – whether in terms of outputs or yields, landscape value, soil quality, or investment value. To create a healthier relationship with the land we have to be able to see the whole picture. The closest the government has got to recognising that interconnectedness in recent years is the quickly-shelved but still very useful Government Office for Science Land Use Futures report of 2010, which includes some beautifully complicated systems maps showing how land use touches on almost every government department.
These two starting points – that land is a common good, and that it is a system – lay the ground for a more replenishing, productive and sustainable relationship with the land. That entails recognising that land issues – access to it, ownership of it, use of it, decisions about it – are cultural and social justice issues, and are therefore legitimate political issues.
We need to recognise that we are reliant on the land for our basic needs. As author Gary Paulsen said, ‘Every single damn thing that we are or ever will be is dependent on six inches of topsoil.’ For people, communities and organisations who are committed to building a socially and environmentally just society, land, stewardship and environmental quality must be at the heart – it can’t be an afterthought.
A key route to change is government-led national land reform, but that takes time. Right now, we are seeing a whole host of initiatives from the grassroots up, building new paths that have the potential to lead us to a more equitable, replenishing and just relationship with our land.
The Scottish Government, for example, recognises land as a common good and has codified the responsibilities that sit alongside landowners’ rights. Community land trusts are evolving various models of ownership and stewardship, separating the value of land from the value of the property that sits on it. There is growing cross-party consensus on the need to better capture for the community the uplift in the value of land that has been granted planning permission. The ‘new municipalism’ and ‘community wealth building’ movements are paving the way for a new relationship with the state and local businesses and community enterprises.
Internationally, land rights are seen as tools of empowerment and self-determination, with organisations like La Via Campesina and the International Land Coalition networking different struggles and campaigns together. The black farmers’ movement in the US is looking at how mechanisms for reparations for slavery can secure land to enable black Americans to re-connect with the land. Across Europe, organisations such as Terre des Liens and EcoRuralis are connecting small farmers with sustainable landholdings and sowing the seeds of a new land system as they do so.
In the UK, Shared Assets sees a small but determined wave of organisations taking land management for the common good into their own hands: from OrganicLea, Kindling Trust Heeley Development Trust, Regather, and Tamar Grow Local, to the Ecological Land Cooperative and the Landworkers’ Alliance. We aim to work alongside these people to join up the threads of their work into larger systemic change and to support them as they face new obstacles while continuing a long tradition of managing land as a common good. It’s also heartening to see the major political parties starting to recognise land as a strategic issue for the first time in almost a century. We are hopeful that the next two decades could be the time when land takes its rightful place at the heart of our national politics.
Kate Swade and Mark Walton are executive directors of Shared Assets, a social enterprise ‘think-and-do tank’. Shared Assets believes land is a common good that should be managed in ways that create shared benefits and sustainable livelihoods. It works with landowners, communities and land workers to co-create new models of land use and governance fit for the 21st century
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