In London, land and property have become more lucrative than diamond dealing

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Jul 13 14:06:29 BST 2019

Land and property is becoming more lucrative than diamonds in London,
Posted on 12 July 2019

The landowning establishment

Land privatisation, the largest neoliberal grab 
in Britain since Margaret Thatcher came to office 
in 1979, has scarcely been debated. Also shrouded 
in secrecy is who actually owns a lot of it. Now 
two new books, reviewed here by PAUL KERSHAW, and 
recent Labour Party statements are helping to put 
these important issues on the agenda.

    * Who Owns England? How we lost our green & 
pleasant land & how to take it back, by Guy 
Shrubsole; Published by William Collins, 2019, £20
    * The New Enclosure: the appropriation of 
public land in neoliberal Britain, by Brett 
Christophers; Published by Verso, 2018, £20
Over the last 40 years a startling 10% of 
Britain's land mass has been sold off by the 
state. In his book, The New Enclosure, Brett 
Christophers estimates conservatively that this 
amounts to a £400 billion privatisation.

That dwarfs the other big privatisations, such as 
housing, railways or utilities, and represents 
more than twelve times the value of the Royal 
Bank of Scotland. The sale of land continues and, 
Christophers suggests, may be speeding up.

All types of public land have been targeted, 
including that held by local and central 
government. While disposals have generally been 
more rapid under Tory and Tory-led 
administrations, they are not the only ones at it.

NHS land, for example, was a particular target 
under New Labour as a result of the pressure of 
the 'internal market' on health trusts.

The NHS 'estate', estimated at around 50,000 
hectares in 1982, has shrunk by over 70% to 6,500 
hectares today. Some health trusts have to buy 
back land on the open market in order to build new hospitals.

In another new book, Who Owns England?, Guy 
Shrubsole investigates what he describes as 
England's darkest secret, using computer mapping, 
dogged investigation and the occasional helpful leak.

It is amazingly difficult to identify landowners 
in England and, he writes, "there's a reason for 
that: concealing wealth is part and parcel of preserving it".

Shrubsole says that most people have little idea 
how unequal land ownership is, but just 5% of 
England's land is owned by ordinary householders.

Meanwhile, "a few thousand dukes, baronets and 
country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together".

No doubt for similar reasons, public bodies have 
been very poor at recording what land they have disposed of.

In 2016, the Tories attempted to privatise the 
Land Registry, the public body responsible for 
keeping a database of land and property in England and Wales.

If carried through this would have made 
information even more difficult to access. The 
PCS union fought a strong campaign against the 
plan and groups representing capital also 
expressed concern that the registry's role could be undermined.

The proposals were dropped. Incredibly, not even 
the police are allowed to access its records 
without the owner's permission, clearly hindering 
investigations into corruption and money laundering.

The rich and powerful

Painstaking research reveals that half of England 
is owned by less than 1% of its population. 
Shrubsole estimates that aristocrats and gentry 
still own around 30% of the land.

This could well be an underestimate as the owners 
of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at 
the Land Registry. These are most likely to be 
aristocrats as many of their estates have 
remained in their families for centuries.

They have not been sold on the open market so 
their ownership does not need to be registered. 
There is no mandatory and centralised 
registration of title as there is in some capitalist countries.

An estimated 18% of England is owned by 
corporations, some based overseas or in offshore jurisdictions for tax reasons.

Shrubsole's book is full of anecdotes revealing 
how he became obsessed with this issue. He 
describes how, as a ten-year-old in 1996 growing 
up in Newbury, eco-warrior protests at the 
building of the town's bypass became national news.

He joined a march over threatened land with his 
parents. They kept some beehives in the woodland 
of the vast Sutton estate through which the 
bypass would run; the landlord failed to put up a fight to protect it.

He saw how the bee population was threatened, not 
only by motorways but also by the pesticides 
produced at the local Bayer plant. He came to 
reject the idea that ancient barons were reliable 
custodians of the countryside.

His later research revealed that 44% of west 
Berkshire (the county in which Newbury is 
located) is owned by just 30 individuals and organisations.

The biggest single west Berkshire landowner is 
Tory MP Richard Beynon, the inheritor of the 
12,000-acre Englefield estate, in his family since the 18th century.

His fortune is estimated at £110 million, part of 
which comes from the 19th century development of 
De Beauvoir Town in Hackney, east London.

In 2014, his company attracted publicity when it 
bought a share in the New Era estate in Hoxton 
and tried to jack up the social level rents with 
the potential to make current tenants homeless.

A big campaign involving local residents, trade 
unions, the Socialist Party and comedian Russell 
Brand pushed back these proposals, but age-old 
privilege and power relations were laid bare.

Shrubsole visits a site in Surrey that Gerrard 
Winstanley, the radical leader of the Diggers and 
advocate of land reform during the English 
revolution, sought to claim as common land in the 
1640s. It is now the site of very private executive homes.

He researches the secretive web of The Peel 
Group, involved in infrastructure, transport and 
real estate, tracing how it influences urban 
planning and development decisions for profit.

For example, Peel acquired the Manchester Ship 
Canal when it was privatised in 1987. In 2008, it 
emerged as the dominant force behind a business 
grouping that successfully lobbied against the 
proposal for a Greater Manchester congestion charge.

As owners of the out-of-town Trafford Centre it 
feared the charge would lose it customers who had to drive through the city.

In that case there was a public vote. Most of the 
time, The Peel Group exerts influence with far less visibility.

We get vivid insights into the lives of the 
super-rich and their property. Shrubsole visits 
41 Grosvenor Street in Mayfair, a dusty, empty 
mansion bought for a staggering £28.5 million in 
2007 by Timur Kulibayev, son-in-law of the then president of Kazakhstan.

Council figures show that 60,000 homes around the 
country have stood empty for over two years.

He estimates that Kensington and Chelsea, the 
borough where the Grenfell Tower disaster took 
place in June 2017 leaving 72 dead and hundreds 
homeless, had over 1,500 empty homes in that year.

Many are rumoured to be on the Cadogan estate, 
dubbed the 'ghost town of the super-rich'. With 
an estimated wealth of £6.5 billion, Lord 
Cadogan's ludicrous family motto is, 'He who envies is the lesser man'.

The GMB union calculated that, in 2014 alone, the 
estate received £116,000 in housing benefit from less well-off tenants.

Land speculation

The pattern of land ownership in Britain was not 
established peacefully. The Norman conquest of 
1066 established the system of property rights recorded in the Doomsday Book.

The dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41 
resulted in land being parcelled out to favourites of Henry VIII.

The brutal, enforced enclosures of the 18th and 
19th centuries took vital land rights from the 
rural poor to the benefit of landowners, forcing 
millions of people into the cities where they had 
to sell their labour, laying the basis for the rise of industrial capitalism.

Not for nothing did Karl Marx speak of capitalism 
arising "dripping from head to toe, from every 
pore, with blood and dirt". The dynasties 
established through these processes still dominate land ownership in Britain.

Enclosure was justified with talk of 'waste land' 
to describe commons. Christophers points out that 
comparable language of 'surplus land' is used today when defending sell-offs.

Moreover, there has been no serious assessment by 
official bodies of the effects of the sell-off. 
In truth, if we saw primitive accumulation by 
theft during the rise of capitalism, we are now 
seeing accumulation by dispossession.

Of course, once the land is sold it will only be 
used to meet community needs if a profit can be made.

The claim that selling land increases the supply 
of affordable housing is not borne out by 
evidence. Christophers writes: "The private 
sector does not lack land; and nor, more 
significantly, does it lack land that is suitable 
for commercial development, or for which planning 
permission has been granted"..

He argues that this 'new enclosure' has been 
accompanied by the emergence of a new form of 'financialised' land ownership.

Rather than being regarded, primarily, as a 
source of income from rent, for productive 
activities or the provision of housing, 
institutions such as banks, insurance companies 
and pension funds come to regard land mainly as a financial asset.

It is seen as collateral, or is bought and sold 
for speculative gain. For example, its value can 
rise massively if planning permission is granted.

Parasitical landowners

Ideas about land ownership have changed over the 
years, as Christophers' more theoretical book outlines.

He quotes Edward Stanley, the 15th Earl of Derby, 
speaking in 1881 as one of Britain's largest 
landowners: "The object which men aim at when 
they become possessed of land in the British 
Isles may, I think, be enumerated as follows.

"One, political influence; two, social importance 
founded on territorial possession, the most 
visible and unmistakable form of wealth; three, 
power exercised over tenancy; the pleasure of 
managing, directing and improving the estate 
itself; four, residential enjoyment, including 
what is called sport; five, the money return - the rent".

In the authentic voice of privilege, here is a 
succinct summary of why land ownership matters.

Christophers cites Marx, who explained that in 
19th century England landed property had 'cast 
off' its feudal character and was aiming to make 
as much money as possible through rent.

Rent is not an abstract price, however. Contrary 
to the picture in economics textbooks, it 
reflects class struggle and power relations.

As Christophers puts it, rent is a "worldly, 
messy, negotiated outcome". He quotes Marx: "The 
rent of land is established as a result of the 
struggle between tenant and landlord". (Economic 
and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

Economic ideas have shifted with the changing 
class forces. The classical economists of the 
19th century took a much more critical position, 
reflecting the conflict between the rising 
capitalist class and landowners at the time.

Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others saw 
landlords as essentially parasitical. Rent creams 
off a share of surplus value from industrial 
capital, so the antipathy to landlordism was no mystery.

Marx advanced two reasons for the toleration of 
landlordism by capital: the fear that an attack 
on landed property would cast doubt on the 
sanctity of private property generally (ie the 
private ownership of the means of production); 
and the extent to which the capitalists become 
landowners, abolishing the distinction.

Nonetheless, the demand for land nationalisation 
expressed the fullest development of capitalism in its more dynamic phase.

Christophers quotes Lenin's criticism of the 19th 
century Narodniks to underline the point: "The 
Narodnik thinks that repudiation of private 
property is repudiation of capitalism.

"That is wrong. The repudiation of private land 
ownership expresses the demands for the purest capitalist development.

"And we have to revive in the minds of Marxists 
the 'forgotten words' of Marx, who criticised 
private ownership from the point of view of the 
conditions of capitalist economy". (The Agrarian 
Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907)

Land nationalisation has come be seen as an 
'almost inconceivable' and radical idea but this was not always so.

Unfortunately, although Christophers and 
Shrubsole record this, neither puts a case to put it back on the agenda.

Even in the early 20th century some capitalist 
representatives continued to rail against the iniquities of landlordism:

"Roads are made, streets are made, services are 
improved, electric light turns night into day, 
water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles 
off in the mountains - and all the while the landlord sits still.

"Every one of those improvements is affected by 
the labour and cost of other people and the 
taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does 
the land monopolist contribute, and yet by every 
one of them the value of his land is enhanced.

"He renders no service to the community, he 
contributes nothing to the general welfare, he 
contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived".

This reads like an analysis of the gains to 
landowners from modern regeneration schemes. It 
is, in fact, from Winston Churchill in 1909, at 
the time of the Liberal 'people's budget', quoted by Christophers.

Given the interlinking of finance, big capital 
and landownership it is no surprise that 
denunciations of landlordism have become rare in capitalist circles.

This reflects the rottenness of contemporary 
capitalism. However, the inflation of land values 
and the impact of the housing crisis have forced 
some capitalist commentators to raise the issue again.

Writing in 2010, Martin Wolf, chief economic 
commentator of the Financial Times, wrote that 
the value of his London house had risen ten times 
since he had bought it in 1984: "All of that vast 
increment is the fruit of no efforts of mine. It 
is the reward of owning a location that the efforts of others made available".

Big-business land banks

Brett Christophers and Guy Shrubsole argue that 
Britain's acute housing crisis is fundamentally a land crisis.

The real cost of a house is not just the bricks 
and mortar, but the land it stands on, and land 
prices have rocketed up by 400% since 1995.

Taking a longer view, Christophers says land 
accounted for just 2% of the price of residential 
property in the 1930s, while now it is closer to 
70%. The extent of asset-price inflation is breathtaking.

Recent changes to the way the Office for National 
Statistics presents figures reveal the staggering 
fact that land now accounts for over half of UK net worth (over £5 trillion).

Buildings on land were valued at £3.5 trillion, 
roughly equally divided between residential and non-residential property.

All other forms of wealth total just £1.26 
trillion or 13% of the total. Christophers 
observes: "Aside from land and property... there 
really is not much else of any monetary value in 
the contemporary United Kingdom, which is a somewhat sobering thought".

'Free-market' politicians blame the planning 
system for delays in housebuilding, but this does 
not explain the huge land banks with planning 
permission held by so-called developers.

A report by Grant Thornton UK LLP in May 
confirmed that, in 2015, 57,496 homes were given 
planning permission, but three years later - when 
the permission typically runs out - only 30,819 
were under construction or completed.

That means that 46% of potential homes with 
planning permission are not getting built.

The Legal and General financial services group, 
entirely legally, holds what it calls a 
"strategic land portfolio... stretching from 
Luton to Cardiff and comprising 3,550 acres".

Its rationale is simple: "Strategic land holdings 
are underpinned by their existing use value", 
such as farming, "and give us the opportunity to 
create further value through planning promotion 
and infrastructure works over the medium to long term".

Shrubsole points out it is nearly all in green 
belt areas, bought with the aim of lobbying to get the restrictions ripped up.

He also doubts there is a special dastardly class 
of speculator: "Rather, the practice of hoarding 
land awaiting a higher return is something that all landowners do".

The massive sell-off of publicly-owned land is 
another key factor inhibiting councils from building cheap housing.

A survey of councils by the Royal Town Planning 
Institute found it was the highest-rated reason for not building.

Yet, Christophers points out that commentators 
did not pick up on the contradiction, in the same 
2017 conference speech, between Theresa May's 
promise of 'a new generation of council houses' 
and her pledge to ensure that councils release more land to the private sector.

Council-owned farms, which were a way into 
farming for people without inheritance, have been 
part of the land sell-off. Moreover, subsidies 
have been skewed in recent years to support big 
landowners - agribusiness benefits, small farmers suffer.

 From 2003, subsidies have been paid on a farm 
area basis, so the more you own the more you get. 
Seventeen dukes received £8 million in 2015 and, 
in the following year, 14 marquises were handed £3.5 million from the taxpayer.

That is a key reason for the rise in the value of 
agricultural land in recent years - a further taxpayer boost for aristocrats.

It is completely inadequate to hope, however, as 
Shrubsole does, that they will somehow play a role of 'active stewardship'.

He calls for a reformed system of subsidies to 
provide a spur but then, presumably recognising 
that this is not enough, says that "it will 
require the aristocracy's active participation. 
Will they rise to such a challenge?"


The Labour Party recently published a report, 
Land for the Many. One of the authors was Guy 
Shrubsole and it raises some radical policy demands.

The housing charity Shelter has also issued a 
report calling for land reform. Labour is 
considering a halt to land privatisation, tax 
changes, greater transparency, a community 
participation agency and a community right-to-buy 
scheme based on the Scottish model.

In addition, there has been talk of capital 
controls and setting a target for the Bank of England to restrain house prices.

Capitalist economist Kate Barker warned: "A house 
price target is a difficult one for government. 
It is totally absurd for the Bank of England 
unless given control of a whole other range of policies".

This points to the danger of a limited programme. 
Rather than giving yet more power to the Bank of 
England - made 'independent' as one of the 
earliest acts of Tony Blair's first government, 
to the delight of big business - all the main 
banks and financial institutions should be 
nationalised and made accountable to the aims of 
a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. So should the 
huge private estates owned by a tiny number of giant landlords.

These books are part of a revival of radical, 
class-based ideas, and a decline in those 
associated with New Labour and neoliberalism.

They are thought-provoking and offer many 
important facts and figures. They can play a part 
in the debate and, no doubt, will arouse justified anger.

While they reflect this process of searching and 
testing out left-wing ideas, however, they remain 
programmatically limited, even by comparison to 
earlier Labour policy, let alone a socialist 
programme needed to end the rule of capital.

Land has not become any less salient for the 
socialist transformation of society than it was 
in 1847 when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels put 
land nationalisation at the top of the demands in the Communist Manifesto.

Even the Labour manifesto of 1945 stipulated that 
the party believed "in land nationalisation and will work towards it".

The depth of the crisis of British and world 
capitalism will help put it back on the agenda.

Why not 
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'From South America, where payment must be made 
with subtlety, the Bormann organization has made 
a substantial contribution. It has drawn many of 
the brightest Jewish businessmen into a 
participatory role in the development of many of 
its corporations, and many of these Jews share 
their prosperity most generously with Israel. If 
their proposals are sound, they are even provided 
with a specially dispensed venture capital fund. 
I spoke with one Jewish businessmen in Hartford, 
Connecticut. He had arrived there quite unknown 
several years before our conversation, but with 
Bormann money as his leverage. Today he is more 
than a millionaire, a quiet leader in the 
community with a certain share of his profits 
earmarked as always for his venture capital 
benefactors. This has taken place in many other 
instances across America and demonstrates how 
Bormann’s people operate in the contemporary 
commercial world, in contrast to the fanciful 
nonsense with which Nazis are described in so much “literature.”

So much emphasis is placed on select Jewish 
participation in Bormann companies that when 
Adolf Eichmann was seized and taken to Tel Aviv 
to stand trial, it produced a shock wave in the 
Jewish and German communities of Buenos Aires. 
Jewish leaders informed the Israeli authorities 
in no uncertain terms that this must never happen 
again because a repetition would permanently 
rupture relations with the Germans of Latin 
America, as well as with the Bormann 
organization, and cut off the flow of Jewish 
money to Israel. It never happened again, and the 
pursuit of Bormann quieted down at the request of 
these Jewish leaders. He is residing in an 
Argentinian safe haven, protected by the most 
efficient German infrastructure in history as 
well as by all those whose prosperity depends on his well-being.'

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