Past Plots Future Fields
Qualified solicitor and lover of open space, Shim Solomon looks into the exclusivity of land ownership, and the covert erosion of public access.
Squall 9, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 38-40.
The public order section of the Criminal Justice Act has its roots in Enclosure - the process by which common land was privatised and made exclusive throughout the centuries. Both curtail our freedom of movement in the open air and our experience of outdoor space.
Today this is particularly noticeable in towns and cities. As community consumers, we are overloaded with places to go into and stay for a while. Work in the office, shop or factory; recreation in shops, restaurants and clubs etc. By contrast the choices to be outside are limited. Apart from pavements and roads, the right to roam and loiter without intent, is confined to parks or one of a handful of remaining commons.
Nor is it much different for most people in the countryside. Apart from the confined areas of country parks and picnic sites, freedom to roam is on a strictly public footpath basis, with a legal entitlement to passage but none to loiter. Legal rights on such precarious strips of land cater only for those who want to get to know the land by passing and then re-passing whilst on the move.
Knowledge of the land and its potentials largely lie buried in the past, with the call for land-use rights currently incumbent upon a few activists and cooperatives. This may in part be due to a general ignorance about the exclusivity of British land ownership and of the continuing covert ‘theft’ of public access.
However, for a few select people a different relationship to the land exists. As well as receiving additional financial help from the state by virtue of owning substantial tracts of land (set aside), owners accumulate more wealth by charging for its use. In the past, masses of people, having become estranged from the land, reacted to stem the tide of lost access.
There are recent signs of a reawakening knowledge of a stolen natural inheritance that may yet manifest itself in a clamour for better public access to the fields, hills and forests of our own country.
BRIEF HISTORY LESSON IN STOLEN LAND: THE ENCLOSURES
“The fruits of the earth belong to us all and the earth itself to nobody.” Rousseau
After the Normans conquered England on the familiar date, they handed out the land to about 180 barons in a bid to placate local leaders and unite the incoming Norman aristocracy. William the Conqueror had a land census drawn up known as the Doomsday Book and, armed with the knowledge of exactly who owned what and where, he was able to lay claim to, and subsequently give away, vast tracts of land apparently belonging to no one.
Acres of common land enclosed in England and Wales.
|18-19th Century||7 Million|
Exclusivity was however tempered, as ancient rights to public land use continued to be respected, at least for a while. Such rights were known as common rights and were held by commoners over land which, whether privately or publicly owned, came to be known as common land. Common rights allowed the mass of people to successfully subsist, giving a wide variety of rights to use land, including the right to graze animals, to glean the fields after harvest, to gather nuts and berries, to fish for all kinds of fish - including salmon and to take wood for fires and building.
However, then came the 15th Century. This was a time of massive change for the British public. Not content with their substantial acreage, landowners wanted more land for more wealth and more hunting.
A shortage of unclaimed land meant that landowners now turned their attention to unfenced woods and common lands. Common land was turned over to sheep farming, as this brought in more wealth than arable farming. Not only did the landless begin losing their common rights and thus their ability to feed themselves, they also lost control of their own working lives; forced as they were to take up jobs in service of the landowners. However, whilst being forced into the position of having to work full time, then as today, full time work was not available to all. Sheep farming required less labourers than arable, with the result that many thousands of landless people found themselves without jobs. Some stayed on in their villages dependant on poor relief, some left the villages to squat in the woods - developing into self sufficient communities of artisans, others left to seek employment elsewhere, whilst the rest joined the swelling band of vagrants.
Nor was recreation ever to be the same again, enclosure had reallocated old hay meadows and common land to individual farmers, robbing the poor of the space for their recreation.
In 1649, the British Parliament was bom after an eight year civil war and the execution of Charles 1st. The substitution of monarch by parliament did nothing to halt enclosure and the misappropriation of land. A selfish catholic ruling elite was simply replaced with a selfish protestant ruling elite.
Enclosure had become the landowner’s weapon, with parliamentary enclosure as the new ammunition. New laws meant that land was enclosed merely on the say so of those holding the majority of land. The result was the ‘theft’ of yet more huge tracts of common land.
The other form of enclosure was ‘piecemeal enclosure’, a slow process by which individual land owners bought and sold strips of land until there was enough land to enclose.
As a prelude to today’s public banishment from the land, the industrial revolution in the 18th century saw the poor move from the countryside into towns. As a result, land gradually became less contentious, as people became less aware of what was being taken from them, dispossession became an accepted state. Land ownership began to be something their collective memory could not recall. Moreover, the landless no longer had the time to protest - their new employers forced them to work up to 16-18 hours a day, six days a week.
Common land continues to disappear to this day. Land we often refer to as a ‘common’, such as Wimbledon Common for instance, is not in fact common land at all. Particularly in towns and cities, this land is owned by trusts and corporations with agreed access for the general public. Actual Common land allows common rights, such as the picking of berries and nuts etc. mentioned earlier in this article. Common rights however, do not include access to all the land, only passage to and from picking the berries or fishing etc.
As a consequence, as long as passage is ensured in some way, such as the placing of a path around the edge for instance, then the rest of the land can be fenced off as unavailable to public access. In 1986, there were only 1.5 million acres of common land left, with the public having no rights of access over 1.2 million of those acres
WHO DOES OWN THE LAND?
A myth perpetuated in John Major’s so called ‘classless’ society, suggests there to be an increasing amount of equal opportunity for all to be ‘successful’ and rich. The richest people today, so goes the myth, are drawn from the ranks of pop stars, business men and women and now national lottery winners, whilst the once comfortable landowner is continuing to starve in some draughty garret; forced to open the family mansion to the general public (for an admission fee of course), in order to make ends meet. However, this myth is false.
Not only have landowners of more than a few acres managed to keep their land and multiply their wealth, a significant few have actually increased their wealth with financial help from the government, through national subsidies such as tax relief and exemption from rates. Nationally financed spending on agriculture was twice as high as EEC spending within the UK in 1978, showing such subsidisation to be mostly provided by the British taxpayer.
Having to rely on figures from 1976 (because the Royal Commission for Income and Wealth responsible for investigating such information was closed down by the Tories in 1979), it can be clearly seen that owning land is a precursor to wealth. The richest 1% of the population owned 52% of the land, whilst the next richest 2-5% of the population owned 22% of the land.
Looking at the year 1976, the Earl of Derby held onto a 70,000 acre estate, including land and property in Bolton, Bury, Salford, Manchester and Liverpool, and in return received a gross income made up of rents and agriculture of £300,000. By 1985 this would have been the equivalent of £2.9 million. Another example is the royal family and Crown Estates, who in the year ending 31st March 1984, earned £2.5 million off property rents in St James’ (central London) alone.
Finally, consider the Church. Their property portfolio consists of shops, offices, US property, housing, industrial property and farms, all charged out at market rents. In 1986 the church earned the irreligious sum of £45 million pounds, although its property portfolio has considerably slimmed down since then due to bad housing investments.
A major point to rescue from the maths is that land ownership is extremely concentrated. Ninety six per cent of land falls into the hands of five main groups and that’s not including land covered in houses and flats. The scarcity of land created by such a concentration of ownership leaves the rest of us to compete for just 4% of the land.
In addition to rents drawn from the land, income is derived from subsidies and grants provided by the government in connection with agriculture. Most of these are far from fairly distributed. The subsidies were devised to encourage farmers to grow crops in response to a problem noticed during WW2, when the basic food supply nearly failed. The subsidies were intended to stop people starving in any future war.
An attempt to prevent over production is the reason for continuing existence of the subsidies currently in place. However, they were not designed with an efficient modern industry - made up of relatively large holdings - in mind, but for continental holdings, where the majority are small, family based holdings run on ancient peasant principles.
In 1986 the average size of a European farm was as follows: West Germany - 38 acres, France - 65 acres, UK - 170 acres. Bear in mind that in the UK, 40% of farms are less than 50 acres, making the 170 acre average deceptive. Put another way, small holdings in the UK make up a tiny fraction of farmland acreage, most of which is huge farm holdings owned by rich landowners.
Yet it is the image of the poor, struggling smallholder that is promoted by the massive media machine of the National Union of Farmers, and relied upon to maintain a vast selection of subsidies and grants paid out ‘equally’ to the 60% of farmers who own more than 170 acres, as to the 40% who own less than 50 acres.
European subsidies guarantee a set price to the farmers for their produce. The burden of this subsidy falls on the consumer, who ends up paying far more than the world market price and who also pay for the mountains of food not sold on the open market, their subsequent storage and later disposal.
Farmers are also paid for not doing anything. When they are said to be “setting aside” land, they receive £253 per hectare to do so. Designed to prevent surplus, this policy is known to have made one large farmer a tidy £200 000, simply for not doing anything with his land.
Other assistance comes from national sources such as those which exempt farmers from VAT and rates and compensate them for owning land of poor agricultural quality - officially termed ‘less favoured’ land. This amounted to some half a million acres between 1984-1985, and payments of £131 million.
In 1984 the Sunday Times estimated that the average subsidy payout was £20,000 to each farmer, leading them to conclude what can only be obvious; for large land-holding farmers any farming business could be made profitable by anyone.
THE FORESTRY COMMISSION
“I turned my steps towards the distant woods…. among the woods I forced my way…. Then up I rose, and dragged to earth both branch and bough with crash and merciless ravage…. [but] When…. I turned away…. I felt a sense of pain when I beheld.
The silent trees and the intruding sky…. With gentle hand touch, For there is a Spirit in the wood.”
(William Wordsworth - ‘Nutting’)
Many people appreciate trees and many trees are owned on behalf of people by the Forestry Commission. But is the Commission as publicly minded as it should be?
For example, out of the seven possible chairpersons since its formation, five have been private landowners. Secondly, it has total responsibility for dishing out grants to those wanting to plant forests; this it can do to anyone, however wealthy they already are. The main planters, however, are still the traditional large landowners or pension funds administered through one of the four main private forestry companies.
Many Forestry Commission forests, including all those planted for wood-profits, are conifer forests and therefore dark dense wildlife-free zones. This is in contrast to the vast majority of native British woodland. Forestry Commission forests were not set up to conserve or protect our woodland, but to reduce our reliance on imported wood for building. Such timber is unreliable in strength, as the trees are forced to grow fast for quicker profits, rendering it less usable by builders and weakening the economic argument for the continued expansion of these sorts of forests.
More recently there has been a change in European Law directly requiring the use of trees as an alternative to fossil fuel. The Government’s intention is to pay farmers to plant trees on their ‘surplus land’ . The question arises - Why isn’t one single payment made for the planting of these trees, which take only a few years to grow, on ‘set aside’ land?
Who Owns What?
%age of England and Wales (1986 figures)
|Pension Funds, Insurance Cos||1.2|
|Owner-occupiers farmers less than 50 acres||4|
|Public Bodies inc. Forestry Comm., MoT, MoD||12.6|
|Richest 6% of pop incl. Dukes and Ladies||74|
The other major concern about Forestry Commission forest is the amount being sold off into private hands. In all, 800 000 acres were sold between 1986 and 1994, with yearly sales increasing. A Parliamentary Written Question (Hansard 12/12/94 Col 504) revealed that 114 woods covering an area of 22,649 acres are currently up for sale on the open market. This means that the positive aspect of Forestry Commission owned forests - that it gives access to the public (albeit on a temporary basis in the form of a permissive right, rather than a legal right in perpetuity) - is also lost. This is because it is rare, by contrast, for private owners to offer even a permissive right, unless such terms have been agreed prior to sale. According to the Rambler’s Association, only 15% of land sold by the Commission into private hands is still open to the public.
17th & 18th Century Laws and the Landless
1660 - Publications banned and radicals removed from official posts
1661 - Illegal to collect more than 20 signatures on petitions for matters established by law
1662 - Squatters evicted from woods and commons and migrants stopped and checked
1671 - Game Act: Unlawful to hunt unless freeholder or long leaseholder
1715 - Riot Act
1723 - “Black Act”: 50 new hanging offences for such things as cutting turf, taking wood and cultivating waste land.
LAND PROTESTS: PAST AND FUTURE
“That man I remember well, and at least two centuries have passed since I saw him: He travelled neither on horseback nor in a carriage. Purely on foot he undid the distances. Carrying neither sword nor weapon…. He never fought with another of his kind - His struggle was with water or with earth, with the wheat, for it to become bread.... Where he lived, everything a man touched would grow. The hostile stones hewn by his hands took shape and form…. I think that those who made so many things ought to be masters of everything...”
(Pablo Neruda - ‘The People’)
“The first man who having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him.”
Having enclosed the land, owners now found themselves with time on their hands, whilst labourers provided their food and income. They began to draft new laws, specifically a highly artificial property law, which converted that ‘theft’ into unalterable rights for the advantage of a privileged few.
However, these changes did not go unchallenged. Leading campaigners such as Gerard Winstanley, writing around the time when enclosures were reaching their peak during the 17th century, played a part in the protest by naming all land owners as the adversary and their ancestors as “robber barons”, who “first did murder their fellow creatures men, and after plunder or steal away their land”.
And then there were the activists (the Levellers and the Diggers) who, whilst not attacking private ownership itself, did attack the lack of public access to the land and the cultivation rights to vast amounts of productive earth, such as that beneath hunting forests or commons. However, protest words alone proved inadequate and so direct action proved necessary.
Between 1649 and 1650, a group of Diggers ploughed up St George’s Hill Common (which incidentally is now a golf course), cultivating it in order to draw attention to their cause. Other Digger groups did the same with commons in Northants, Kent, Barnet, Middlesex, Beds and Leicester - to name but a few. In 1639, in Northants, a group of small farmers marched to a nearby green and pulled down the hedges of the local enclosing landowners.
Resistance continued into the 19th century, fuelled by new government laws, further restricting public access to land (see table below). The 1830 ‘Last Labourers’ Revolt’ saw labourers throughout southern England, East Anglia and southern Midlands, burn hayracks and the new threshing machines that were taking away their jobs.
No-one was killed and only a few land-owners were injured. Nonetheless, rather than entertaining the legitimacy of their claims, the government reacted by hanging 19 people, imprisoning 600 and transporting 457.
This heavy-handed response forced direct action for land rights to take a long sleep, only reawakening briefly in the thirties, with the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the Peak District.
In England there were no other groups to threaten the new system of land ownership. The next group in the hierarchy were tenant farmers and they were beneficiaries too. Large landowners bought the land of small land-owners and then leased it to tenant farmers, who in turn took on employees.
By contrast, it was the tenant farmers in Ireland who were themselves at the bottom of the pile, forming themselves into the Irish Land League in protest at high rents and absentee landlords. Although they did put their demands into parliamentary channels via their MP, it was not this route that won them their cause but direct action ranging from rent strikes to violence. The government, fearing civil unrest, embodied their demands in the 1881 Irish Land Act. A few large landowners do still exist, but Ireland is essentially a land of peasant proprietors with an average holding of only 60 acres.
Fifty years later, and after 50 years of campaigning, the landless were handed a small concession. In 1906 they were given access and rights over the tiniest pieces of land imaginable, the custody of little patches of ground of their own – allotments.
MID 20th CENTURY RIP-OFFS
The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act empowered local authorities to enter into access arrangements over “open” country. Although such arrangements are temporary and can be withdrawn by the landowner at any time, they have allowed greater lawful public access. Six miles from Skipton in Yorkshire, 14,000 acres is now open all year round, save for 30 days when the public is once again excluded to allow grouse shooting.
However, this Act is deceptive, as most countryside remains locked up. In Oxfordshire only 0.4% of park land is open to the public, amounting to 111 acres; leaving 27 000 acres reserved to private use - usually to allow pheasant shooting.
The 1968 Countryside Act was positive in that it extended the definition of ‘open’ country to include woodland, river and canal bank, as well as rough grazing, also giving the local authority the power to buy land for public use. However, its main aim was to protect the countryside from the invading masses, hence the creation of country parks and picnic sites. As one influential planner of the day eloquently put it: rather than spreading a “thin layer of gambolling humanity across the whole island…. people were to be herded into small areas of little scenic or wildlife value where they could do no harm”.
Such fears of ‘damage by footsteps’ were of very little environmental consequence, particularly in comparison to that caused by other factors such as industry. What did matter was how the resource was managed. But this was to be the last attempt at any land access legislation. It suited the landowners very well, for while they continue to ensure that all of their land remains in the hands of their family forever, the devices of country parks and picnic sites makes them seem like that they have finally compromised.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the words of the Earl of Kinrara, owner of 12,000 acres in West Sussex, he “deliberately created a country park under the Countryside Act, on 60 acres of poor quality land…. there is no charge for admission, but it gives the opportunity to say: ’You can’t go there, but you can go to the country park’”.
FUTURE ACCESS FUTURE PROTEST
For a minute, forget such attitudes and the new trespass restrictions in the Criminal Justice Act 1994, and instead focus on the fact that a different relationship with the land is both possible and preferable. Take just one example: In Sweden, trespass is not presumed, access is. People there have the right to roam, wander and camp over all the land with only a few exceptions such as MoD land and land immediately surrounding houses.
Similar rights of access are badly need in this country. What is also required is a greater accountability for land ownership. The obscurity of who owns what, aided and abetted by the dissolution of the Royal Commission on Income and Wealth by the Tories in 1979, allows a tiny minority of super land-owners, unchanged for hundreds of years, to go unnamed and unnoticed. In turn, the public’s awareness of our lost rights of land access should be increased, leading to demands for their reinstatement. Non-violent direct action mass trespasses, not seen since Kinder Scout in 1932, are starting to reappear. There were a number at Twyford Down last year and more are planned for specific places in 1995.
“I bounded among the hills…. I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers and the lonely streams, where-ever nature led.”
Better land access is now necessary to ensure that our contact with the natural environment and appreciation of landscape, does not end up the sole preserve of poetry and imaginative thinking.
Glynn Walters who wrote the ‘Get On Your Land’ in the last issue of SQUALL is in New Zealand researching land tenancies and will be returning later in the year to initiate the Land Reform Group he mentioned at the end of his article. Shim Solomon, author of the above article will also be involved in the setting up of the group. Both can be contacted c/o SQUALL, 2, St Paul’s Road, London N1 2QN. Anyone interested in helping to form a Land Reform Group should get in contact.
Get On Your Land - Land ownership in Britain, and the process of enclosures over centuries. By Glyn Walters - Squall 8, Autumn 1994
The Land Comes Alive - 'Land Is Ours' occupation of St Georges Hill in Surrey - shovelling land issues back into the political arena. By Jim Carey - Squall 10, Summer 1995.