Monday, 21 July 2008

Britain. Who actually owns it?

This bloke does. He didn't buy it. It was given to him

This is a question I asked my Dad when I was 5. He had no idea. 42 years later, I now know

This is a precise from Amazon regarding one of the best books I have ever read

Who Owns Britain by Kevin Cahill

This is a remarkable and original survey of landownership in Britain and Ireland, detailed county by county.

For Britain, Cahill analyses this landownership, showing how a tiny minority exploits British society. 160,000 families, 0.3% of the population, own 37 million acres, two thirds of Britain, 230 acres each. Just 1,252 of them own 57% of Scotland. They pay no land tax. Instead every government gives them £2.3 billion a year and the EU gives them a further £2 billion. Each family gets £26,875.

By contrast, 57.5 million of us pay £10 billion a year in council tax, a land tax, £550 per household. We live in 24 million homes on about four million acres. 65% of homes are privately owned, so 16 million of us own just 2.8 million acres, an average 0.18 acres each.

The top landowners are the Forestry Commission, 2.6 million acres, the Ministry of Defence 750,000, the royal family 670,000 (including the Crown Estate 400,000 and the Duchy of Cornwall 141,000), the National Trust 550,000, insurance companies 500,000, the utility companies 500,000, the Duke of Buccleuch 270,700, the National Trust for Scotland 176,287, the Dukedom of Atholl 148,000, the Duke of Westminster 140,000 and the Church of England 135,000.

The Forestry Commission, Britain's biggest single landowner, runs its holdings conservatively and secretively. We could expand the forest estate by a million acres a year, producing rural jobs, getting profits from the sale of wood and pulp (cutting our balance of payments deficit) and reducing the output of greenhouse gases. This would cost between £588 million and £750 million.

Through the 18th century enclosures, the landowning class stole eight million acres from the people. They still hide their crimes and their takings. The 1872 Return of Owners of Land was made, but then hidden and never updated. Shares have to be registered; land doesn't. The Land Registry does not know who owns between 30 and 50% of land.

Cahill compares Britain with other countries where revolutions have ended the feudal tenure of land. Denmark redistributed its land to the peasantry in 1800. In Ireland, in 1876, 616 landowners owned 80% of the country. By 1930, 13 million acres of Ireland's 20 million acres had been sold to owner-occupiers. Now, there are no landlords - home ownership is 82%, Ireland's 149,500 farms are 97% owner-occupied and owner-farmed, there is no poll tax, water is free and pensioners get free transport, TV and glasses.

Cahill claims that Blair's reform of the House of Lords "definitively cut the permanent link between power and the landowners." But just as in 1872, the state is defending landed capital by making it less visible. Class power does not depend on sitting in the House of Lords, but on private ownership of the means of production, protected and subsidised by a capitalist state. The Greens, like the heritage lobby, shield the landowners against public ownership of the land.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says its mission is to shift EU subsidies from food production to land management, but the EU already does this, with its £2 billion annual subsidy to the landowners, not to working farmers. We need to produce our own food: food production is in our national strategic interest. It is a national security issue that must not be determined either by the EU or by the market.

Landowners' wealth is a parasite on Britain, the least productive part of the economy, with the most state support. Their wealth comes not from farming, nor even from renting, but from trickling land onto the urban housing market. They sell land to property developers, at an average price per acre of £404,000 in 1999. The clearing banks and building societies strip our industries of investment capital, then support their clients the landowners by running the rigged and overpriced land market.

Britain needs land reform. "Windfall gains on development land should be made subject to windfall taxes." We should also tax land and stop the owners avoiding tax through offshore trusts; this could raise £17 billion. The European Convention of Human Rights says there should be no confiscation without compensation. Haven't landowners had enough compensation already? We need more land for housing. This would cut land prices, free more to invest in good quality, spacious homes and gardens, and revive the building industry.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Good stuff.

But 37 million acres at £5k an acre = £185 billion. Total value of all residential and commercially used land (with far, far wider spread of ownership) was, as at last year, about £2,000 bn. So the excerpt is misleading.

Anyway, boo to ag subsidies and hurrah for LVT! But apparently KC opposes LVT on residential land, which makes a mockery of the whole thing.

It is also misleading to say that HMLR don't know who owns what. There is such a thing as an agricultural land register that you need to be on to get your subsidies, so the list exists, it's just a different department.

Old Holborn said...

The HMLR only needs to know if you buy or sell land. Vast swathes have never been sold, so are not registered with the Land Registry (and therefore not liable to tax)

You only need to register with the Agricultural bods if you want to claim subsidies. Not all do.

Mark Wadsworth said...

and therefore not liable to tax

What tax, exactly? Ag land is exempt from IHT* and council tax anyway. When you sell it, there is a capital gains tax and an SDLT liability just like any other land.

* Stricly speaking, only the ag value element, which is usually lower than market value, is exempt. And all transfers of land incl. transfers on death need to be registered nowadays AFAIAA.

As to the ag land register, I doubt that these buggers forget to register for their freebies.

Lilith said...

Landowners I know let all 200 acres out to tennant farmers, now second generation and soon to be third, plus a 5 bedroom farmhouse and yard with barns sheds etc. They do this because the tennant farmer makes good use of the land and keeps the countryside productive and cared for. After over 35 years they started charging a "market rent" for the farmhouse (less than it would rent privately for, without the land) which is only sporadically paid. 10 years ago they had to "buy" two cottages back off the tennant farmer for £45k each when they were sitting empty and the family needed them.

I am not saying the big landowners shouldn't be taxed. Not all landowners are so generous to their farming tennants either. Take the Prince of Wales. He gave some farmers a million quid off their rent during the foot and mouth crisis. The rents he charges that means he probably only waived rents for half a dozen farms... He charges a farmer around here 60k pa for 300 acres...

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Oh, Jesus, not this shit again. By all means, kill the subsidies but for Christ's sake, OH, are you going to let me have your grandfather's gold watch when you pop your clogs, or are you going to want to leave it to someone of your choice?

And this crap about 18th century enclosure, that's like banging on about slavery.

Get a fucking grip, man.

Jock Coats said...

Indeed, KC doesn't actually agree that there is any such thing as "land rent" to tax.

He has some good points - for example that meeting the current "need" for 2m homes would actually, at relatively low densities compared with what planners want today, only consume less than half a per cent of non-urbanized land in England. But he's much more keen on an Ireland style physical redistribution of land, which I don't believe is right or just because it makes it almost impossible for anyone new to have any more land if its all divvied up.

But the book is valuable ammunition. He has also done a "who owns the world?" which I do not have, but I gather he concludes that our monarch is the world's largest landowner as the crown has some vestigial rights to huge swathes of the old Empire (including perhaps the US).

Peter and Dan Snow did one of their programs sort of based on "Who own Britain?"

Jock Coats said...

Herbert Spencer on land ownership:

“But Time,” say some, “is a great legaliser. Immemorial possession must be taken to constitute a legitimate claim. That which has been held from age to age as private property, and has been bought and sold as such, must now be considered as irrevocably belonging to individuals.” To which proposition a willing assent shall be given when its propounders can assign it a definite meaning. To do this, however, they must find satisfactory answers to such questions as—How long does it take for what was originally a wrong to grow into a right? At what rate per annum do invalid claims become valid? If a title gets perfect in a thousand years, how much more than perfect will it be in two thousand years?—and so forth. For the solution of which they will require a new calculus.

Whether it may be expedient to admit claims of a certain standing, is not the point. We have here nothing to do with considerations of conventional privilege or legislative convenience. We have simply to inquire what is the verdict given by pure equity in the matter. And this verdict enjoins a protest against every existing pretension to the individual possession of the soil; and dictates the assertion, that the right of mankind at large to the earth’s surface is still valid; all deeds, customs, and laws, notwithstanding.

etc, etc...

Guthrum said...

this verdict enjoins a protest against every existing pretension to the individual possession of the soil; and dictates the assertion, that the right of mankind at large to the earth’s surface is still valid; all deeds, customs, and laws, notwithstanding.

Right on !

I read this book when researching my familys History, particularly when my ancestors estate in Melton Mowbray was made a ward of court in 1617, as he was 17 at the time. Needless to say James ist wanted ready cash not feudal military service, so that was the end of 400 years ownership, and the land was consolidated into the Estates of the great and the good. The Monarchy have paid for it ever since in that we raised cavalry in the English Civil War for Parliament, and generally made a nuisance of ourselves.

At the end of the day, all ownership is transitory, the Celt/Roman/Saxon family that owned this part of Somerset are long gone, as will this current crop.

We just need to sweep away the planning laws that give such inflated values to land and keep people chained up in cities.

Mark Wadsworth said...

We just need to sweep away the planning laws that give such inflated values to land and keep people chained up in cities.


former tory said...

The European Convention of Human Rights says there should be no confiscation without compensation. Haven't landowners had enough compensation already?

Sounds like State-sponsored theft to me. Imagine - having to watch out for Bolsheviks even after all this time.

If the landowners own the land under the law, it doesn't matter whether this man, or you, or me, likes it or not, any more than it matters whether he likes your right of free speech, or not.

If Government summarily and retrospectively decides that an asset owner has had enough compensation for that asset in the past, and now they're going to seize it, then that's theft.

If the owner is a quango (Forestry Commission, Nat Trust, and arguably - but facetiously - even the Church of England) or Government department (MoD) then, fine, let them do what they will.

If it's the Duke of SomeDamnPlaceOrOther, hard luck. Change the tax laws by all means and I agree there's a great deal of good can be done thereby - but statements like the one quoted above are just bloody silly.

Unless of course you'd like to contemplate the Government, having given itself the right to seize property where the owner is deemed to have had enough compensation for it, wandering along after you've been drawing your State pension for a few years, and awarding itself your house.

Jock Coats said...

Guthrum - "We just need to sweep away the planning laws that give such inflated values to land and keep people chained up in cities."

Yes, and no. Yes, because as Kevin Cahill says and I mention above, we're not actually looking at an aweful lot of land needing to be released to house everyone in better conditions than at present (we are the only developed nation I think in which average house sizes have fallen with an increase in wealth - by 30% in 50 years). But just building enough to house everyone does not remove the disparities between locations whose values are created by the activity of people and communities who form and develop around a location.

Former Tory...

I am an advocate of minimal government, and would prefer not to have tax (at least national taxes) at all if possible. However, I do recognize that we will have some call for taxation for a little while yet. What "asset" would you prefer to confiscate if not land values?

We often do not have absolute title to land in any case (arguably ever in this country given the position of the crown and freehold). Land titles are a bundle of rights (indeed at one point transfers were registered by the transfer of a bundle of sticks to represent the different aspects of a location the person was transferring). I have a friend whose house the Church Commissioners wanted to sell him on the basis of a "flying freehold" where they retained all rights from three meters underground downwards and from one meter above the roof upwards. And of course there are countless other examples of covenants and sales that exclude mineral and other rights, or enforced easements, or just the condition that you need to get permission to do certain things with your property in order to preserve "rights" of neighbours.

More importantly, land is "finite" and "necessary for life to exist", and therefore even Locke would say that you have to find a mechanism of ensuring that there is space for everyone who needs access to it.

Taxing the value of land which the owners, qua owners, do not contribute to, is economically far better than taxing any productive assets or trade and incomes, would be significantly cheaper, and have wider ranging effects on the health of the economy and the levelness of playing field we all compete on that would require far less government intervention than the complex mechanisms James Purnell was talking about yesterday.

If it's such a communist idea, I wonder why Friedman, Smith, William F Buckley and many other "right of centre" political-economists support it?

former tory said...


Did you misunderstand me, or am I misunderstanding you? My response to the stuff OH quoted with such relish is simply that for the Government (at the behest of Cahill or anyone else) to seize land on the basis they can do better with it, or because the owner has been "adequately compensated" for it in the past, or even that it was dubiously acquired originally, is theft. State sponsored.

The State can't steal from itself so land it already owns directly, through Ministerial Departments or through quangos, is going to get dealt with differently.

Now, taxes on land. Yes, tax away. No problem at all. Use the tax structure to promote changes in land use. No problem. Use the income to reduce other tax burdens. No problem.

Jock Coats said...

No - I've misunderstood you - so apologies for that. I am too used to seeing some who are against land tax claiming that it is itself nationalisation or confiscation of land (in fact Kevin Cahill would say so).

It doesn't help that when the Labour government of MacDonald and Snowden tried to do it it was described as nationalisation, at least of development rights!

former tory said...

Cheers, Jock. Glad we could sort that!

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