Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Hippy kid in rural community
Photo: Nick Cobbing

Get On Your Land!

Land ownership in Britain and a new way forward

Squall 8, Autumn 1994, pp. 26-27.

Land ownership is notoriously unequal in this country and this fact is quietly lurking behind some of the present legislation in the Criminal Justice Bill.

At present it is estimated that between 50 and 75% of all land in the UK is owned by 1% of the population. Scotland is rumoured to have the most unequal land ownership in the entire world. Due to the unavailability of information and lack of openness in Government departments, nobody actually knows for certain who owns what. In 1981, Mrs. Thatcher conveniently wound up the Royal Commission on Income and Wealth, a body that was investigating land holdings.

What is well-documented is that over hundreds of years previously common land, under the jurisdiction of local communities, has slowly become more concentrated. Ever-larger estates are accumulating vast wealth at the expense of the poorer majority of people. The processes of industrialisation, land enclosure and clearances conveniently concentrated the labouring classes in towns, while colonialism allowed the removal of the historic dependence between people and land through imports of staple foodstuffs and luxuries.

Today, labour-intensive industrialism is dead, 5.2 million people claim income support and housing and agriculture is in crisis. However, there are a few tentative but living examples of real change now up and running. It is time to raise the flag of land reform in the UK. There must be a new way forward for the next millennium.

1066 and all that

When William the Conqueror divided the country up among his English and French supporters, he was only continuing what the Anglo-Saxon nobles had already established: semi-independent earldoms or shires maintained through strength. Two thousand English Chiefs welcomed William as their new king, hoping for spoils of the defeated Harold’s estates. Over the following years, the aristocracy gradually became Anglo-Norman, as estates were handed out in return for support for the king, especially in times of war. Land and titles became a strategic form of protection for the monarchy and the quarrelsome barons.

Although few of the original landed aristocratic families have survived to the present day, many large estates have been in existence for hundreds of years. Primogeniture (the passing of the estate to the eldest son) insured many large properties remained intact, while the aristocracy have also successfully absorbed new blood and new wealth, so surviving to today (unlike in France). Land has always been the ultimate bank account for the aristocracy and the ‘new’ rich.

Since the last proper land census, way back in 1875, not much has changed. Four of the top ten landowners in the table over were present in the 1875 top ten. Not bad, considering the changes the 20th century brought; the welfare state, technology, universal suffrage, death duties etc. The Second Domesday Survey of 1875 also found that only 20% of England and Wales was owned by commoners, 970,000 of them in all, meaning most of them had tiny plots. Meanwhile, a quarter of England and Wales was owned by 710 individuals. It has been estimated that more than half the families in the 1875 survey still own all or part of the land they did then.

However, all this information is over 100 years old. Today we are only half as informed as the Victorians were. What has made this situation doubly worse is the introduction of set-aside payments of the Common Agricultural Policy. Large landowners can now claim an average of £253 per hectare of taxpayers money, for doing virtually nothing. The Maffia (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) estimates this to amount to £1.1 billion per year, but will not say who this is for or how much each person gets. Seven particular farmers will receive £500,000 between them this year, and 33,000 will benefit in all.

Combined with the ‘Peace Dividend’, brought by the end of the Cold War, this all means that there is a large amount of ‘excess’ land in this country. All over Europe too, land is being taken out of production. If the former Eastern Bloc countries also get their immense agricultural potential going, then there could be even greater pressure to reduce over-production.

So the time is ripe for people who wish to ‘get back to the land’, or get out of the crumbling inner cities, or escape unemployment, to make their voices heard. There are surely many who would long for the chance to own a smallholding and contribute to the local and national economy through sustainable food production and associated job creation. The Government should also be interested in schemes which could take people off benefit and regenerate rural areas.

Of course, this won’t be easy. Simon Fairlie of Tinker’s Bubble (see page 24) talks of the problems of planning law which need to be overcome. But groups like the Bubble and Exodus (page 40) are living proof of the possibilities open to us.

There has never been a better time to assert our natural rights to the land taken from our forefathers by those with more power, privilege and money. It is time for those in power to start giving back what was ours in the first place. Ordinary people can make much more productive use of land than large landowners, employing and housing more people, and producing better food and products in the process. It is just a matter of overcoming the perceived 'radical' nature of the ethos of land reform; it's not radical, it's simply social justice.


1 Forestry Commission 2,100,000
2 Ministry of Defence 601,000
3 National Trust 565,000
4 Utilities (water, electricity, etc.) 550,000
5 Pension funds/Insurance Companies (est.) 500,000
6 County Farms (owned by Local Authorities) 350,000
7 Crown Estate 300,000
8 Oxbridge Colleges 250,000
9 Church of England/individual churches 200,000
10 Co-Operative Wholesale Soc. Agriculture Ltd. 175,000

(estimates based on various sources where no annual reports or public statements found; The Guardian 13-8-94)

The author of this article, Glyn Walters, proposes the setting up of a Land Reform Society to encourage the redistribution of some of the large areas of land currently going to waste in this country.

A national forum is foreseen, bringing together Government departments, landowners, farmers, planners, housing groups, would-be small-holders and individuals.

Its main aims would be to house people in decent affordable housing and to produce locally grown organic food on a moderate scale. These two aims would in turn deal with a number of social and environmental problems:

There simply aren’t enough decent homes in this country. Many options are available: new, affordable houses; low impact dwellings; renovation of empty properties; reforming the planning laws; splitting up of large estates and farms; converting office space; increasing travellers sites etc.

Crime, Poverty and Unemployment.
By creating new sustainable communities based on smallholdings, the poverty trap of unemployment would be alleviated. Giving people the opportunity to work and live on the land would lessen their dependence on the State, creating produce and thousands of jobs. Crime would be reduced through stable communities and productive, rewarding work.

Intensive Agriculture and Set-Aside.
The last 50 years have seen an almost complete destruction of traditional farming methods through subsidy and mechanization. Thousands of workers are still being pushed off the land every year through chemical over-production. Farmers are now also being paid millions to leave their land idle. This preposterous situation must change. The answer lies in organic smallholdings producing healthy, cheap produce.

War Games and The Peace Dividend.
Large amounts of the Ministry of Defence’s huge land-holdings are no longer needed, much of this land was originally common land anyway. These should be redistributed to new small communities not the highest bidder. A national asset is being sold off to line the pockets of Government and middlemen.

If you wish to get involved write to Glyn Walters, c/o SQUALL magazine.


1 Duke of Buccleuch/Buccleuch Estates Co. 277,000
2 Duke of Westminster/Grosvenor Estates 190,000
3 Earl of Seafield 185,000
4  Prince of Wales/Duchy of Cornwall 141,000
5 Duke of Atholl 130,000
6 Countess of Sutherland 126,000
7 Captain AA Farquharson 119,000
8 Earl of Stair 110,000
9 Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel 98,000
10 Duke of Northumberland 95,000

(NB Individual ownership is almost always held in some form of trust or corporation; The Guardian 13-8-94)

Related Articles
Past Plots and Future Fields - Shim Solomon looks at the continual erosion of access to land and enclosures in Britain over centuries, right up to today's CJA - Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995.