A Case for Land Redistribution in the UK

marksimonbrown tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Sat Jun 23 22:46:21 BST 2012

A Case for Land Redistribution in the UK

All the key transformational episodes in the 
recent history of rural Britain such as the 
foundation of the nature conservation movement, 
the formation of the Council for the Preservation 
of Rural England and later-on, the National 
Parks, have been vested in the patronage of the 
landowning regime of the countryside. The Society 
for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (founded in 
1912) was composed of just 50 members drawn from 
the ranks of the establishment. Its great 
achievement was the acquisition of nature 
reserves, as opposed to the preservation of 
landscapes for their amenity value – the 
objective of the National Trust founded in 1895. 
The legacy of these historical events and 
processes have resulted in the protection of over 
430,000 hectares of wildlife and amenity value, 
including 1,650 Areas or Sites of Special 
Scientific Interest, managed between the National 
Trust, the RSPB and the County Wildlife Trusts. 
However, the impact of intensive farming on the 
wider countryside has resulted in the destruction 
of over 90% of the UK’s habitats.

These underlying trends of environmental damage 
on account of industrial-scale agriculture both 
gives credence to the rural consensus that large 
areas of the countryside and its management are 
in safe hands, while also betraying this 
consensus in that this privileged elite continue 
to practice intensive agricultural methods within part of their vast estates.

Today, only 0.26% of the population (around 
158,000 families) own 41 million acres – 2/3rds 
of the land area of the British-Isles. Of that, 
the vast majority is owned by the even more 
startlingly small number of just 1200 
individuals. This extended family of cousins and 
relatives are “the aristocracy”, who have 
consolidated their hold over vast swathes of the 
land through a history of influence and control 
originally via parliament (up until the end of 
the 19th century, most parliamentarians were all 
major landowners), and then within the House of 
Lords. They continue to preserve their historic 
privilege through the Common Agricultural Policy, 
from which they are the beneficiaries of £3.9 billion a year.

With the production subsidy system having been 
overhauled by the new EU Single Farm Payment 
Scheme (SFPS), the underlying fundamental of 
large landowners gaining a largess of European 
subsidy enabling them to retain very expensive 
assets is now even more explicit since within the 
new system, flat-rate payments are dished out per 
hectare of land. So, our largest landowners now 
receive their money purely for the privilege of owning acres.

Some Receivers of CAP £millions  -    from www.farmsubidy.org

Under the 'Single-Farm Payment' system of 
distributing agricultural subsidies, in the UK in 
the last financial year, huge annual C.A.P. 
payments and other financial aid went out 
to:  Duke of Buccleuch  - £549,000, the Duke of 
Westminster  - £527,000, Lord Carrington - 
£149,000, the estate of Richard Drax M.P. - 
£417,000, H.M. The Queen-( world’s richest 
woman)  - £1.2 billion  for privately owning Sandringham and Windsor Farms

The current CAP system is geared up to 
encouraging good environmental management of the 
land. Elements of conservation land management 
are now meant to exist alongside more 
environmentally benign farming systems. Up until 
now, lowland England has been a countryside of 
agri-desolation - subject to the deleterious 
effects of industrial agriculture such as use of 
pesticides and other chemicals and the vast 
monoculture prairies – sterile environments which 
prevent the colonisation of species. Conservation 
in the UK has been largely conducted on the 
margins of the British landscape. The vast 
majority of nature reserves in the British Isles 
are ‘semi-natural’ – in that they are partly 
human made, and need constant human management to 
ensure their survival. These include lowland wood 
pastures and parkland, boundary features, lowland heathland and grazing marsh.

The rural ruling class - our self-proclaimed 
custodians of England’s green and pleasant land - 
have conspired to exploit Britain’s historic 
class divide and ideologically fashion the 
cultural landscape of the British Isles based 
upon the exclusion of the vast marauding legions 
of city dwellers whose “unsophistication” and 
lack of appreciation for the “ways of the 
countryside” are assumed to the point of serfdom 
by the masses. However, the foxhunting debate has 
been the exception to the rule, as mass civil 
society has rejected the self-adjudicated rights 
of a small number of people who own the vast 
majority of land in Britain. This occurred after 
the first event that marked a change in the 
landowners’ fortunes – when the Blair government 
took away the rights of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords.

While pensioners defy paying inflation-busting 
annual increases in council tax, part of the 62 
million in the British Isles who live on just 4.4 
million acres of land who pay an average £600 a 
year in council tax, the major landowners enjoy 
subsidy handouts to the tune of £3.9 billion – 
which works out at approx £12,150 for each of the 
158, 000 landowning families every year. The 
richest landowners hold onto their vast estates 
underpinned by the guaranteed financial flow of 
CAP cash, pushing up the price of land, in-part 
also a consequence of greater speculation in land 
and also an underlying byproduct of upward trends 
in property value which transfers a mean rise in 
value across all land. Property values are 
afforded such high values as a result of a 
combination of factors, principally the long-term 
expansion of credit within the banking sector and 
free-market economy as the key function of the 
mortgage-property-market collateral treadmill and 
increased speculation in property with market 
exploitation of planning gain by developers, 
itself a byproduct of the institutional workings 
of the planning system - the foundation of which 
was the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. The 
Council for the Protection of Rural England 
rightly maintains a consistent argument against 
the “concreting over of the countryside”  as well 
as further development of the green belt. 
However, the contradiction within this policy has 
seen decades of planning exceptions granted to 
farmers for industrial-size sheds, justified by 
the post-war policy drive for over-production in 
food, which probably outstayed it’s welcome by 
about 30 years. Meanwhile, large landowners and 
increasing trends towards greater land 
concentration have exploited these long-term 
trends in increasing land value, using land as an 
increasing store of wealth. Landowning benefits 
are obvious - farmland is exempt from inheritance 
tax so it pays to buy up farms to avoid tax. 
General trends show that the 1,000 richest 
persons in the UK have increased their wealth in 
the last 3 years by £155bn; their total wealth 
now stands at more than £414bn, equivalent to 
more than a third of Britain’s entire GDP , 
whilst their wealth in 1997 amounted to £99bn. [Michael Meacher from his blog].

All-in-all, there remains a suspicion that the 
rural ruling class maintains their hold over the 
countryside through an overt propaganda campaign 
about preserving the rural aesthetic of rural 
England, whilst having been party to the 
long-term sterilisation of rural activity and the 
rural economy brought about by supermarket power 
and increased land concentration due to the 
subsidy treadmill. The big landowners have always 
been protected from the aggressive machinations 
of the market, which has dealt smaller farmers 
such a harsh deal in recent years. With their 
guaranteed subsidy payment, they have been 
bought-off and compliant to the vertical 
integration of the food production process as 
part of the market concentration of the 
supermarket and agribusiness sector. In the words 
of South Downs landrights activist Dave Bangs, 
“hereditary landowners have been adept at 
protecting their interests – making plentiful 
land look scarce, and being paid from the public 
purse to keep it that way. They perpetuate 
exclusion, while bolstering the cultural power of 
landed wealth by their constant engendering of 
images of continuity and tradition (as though 
only ruling class people had such 
things).”  Their interpretation of a beautiful 
rural scene is one empty of people working the 
land, but rather one of serene inactivity – a 
resurgent biodiversity of wildlife prairie – a 
management style they have up until now seemed 
averse to executing yet one they have been keen 
to accredit themselves with bestowing upon the rest of us.

A rural renaissance awaits sorely needed land 
reform - specifically a legislative bill 
sanctioning the redistribution of the largest 
landed estates to a new constituency of persons 
with skills in land management and farming 
befitting the objective of striking the balance 
between agricultural or horticultural 
productivity and ecological sustainability, as 
well as a liberalisation of rural planning policy 
across the board for the many who seek to live and work on the land.

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list