Whose land is our land?

This is my May Countryman column.

The Land Question once dominated UK politics. “Who ordained that the few should have the land of Britain as a perquisite”, asked Lloyd George in 1909; “who made 10,000 people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?” The right to roam makes it less likely that we will be trespassers on the land, but land ownership has not grown more equal since 1909.

Land ownership is a particular problem for anyone wanting to get into farming. In the decade to 2014, a period of low inflation, the average selling price of arable land increased by a massive 277%. We hear a good deal about the ‘housing ladder’, much less about the farming ladder.

But how can young people wanting to get into farming compete with big companies and the wealthy individuals who are buying up land as a safe, tax efficient investment? Even the county farms, first encouraged by Lloyd George and once a way of getting into farming, are being flogged off 100,000 acres lost since the mid-1980s.

It is easy to rail against the unfairness of land ownership, harder to know what to do about it. In particular, one can ask why some aristocrat should inherit vast acres just because his ancestors got lucky. “This land is our land!”

But as the Scottish Government is discovering, most of the great estates are most of the time good custodians of the land. It is not clear the state or an army of smallholders would look after the land better in the long term. One alternative model is looking particularly tarnished: the Co-op sold off its farms as a single unit when it got into financial difficulty, rather than considering alternative forms of ownership.

Of course, land has many uses. This is not just about farming. As Peter Hetherington writes in Whose land is our land?: “When our island – particularly England – faces the challenges of sustaining a growing population, it is surely reasonable to ask why the UK government has no active land policy to address the pressures of feeding, watering and housing the population as climate change and rising sea levels threaten our most productive acres.”

I do not know the answer to the ‘land question’. But it is about time that people in England, as well the rest of the UK started to ask it.


3 Responses to “Whose land is our land?”

  1. 1 Robert Flunder May 6, 2016 at 8:50 am

    There was a time in the recent past, may be still current, when farmers were among the highest suicide groups in the UK because of the business and physical pressures of the job. Are there really young people ardently seeking entry to the occupation but only prevented by lack of accessible land ? Do they understand the nature of the business ?

  2. 2 Robert Flunder May 6, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Of course the “land question” arises because of the projection of an ever increasing population.
    As well as no “land policy” the government has no “population growth policy”, except a laissez-faire encouragement in the belief there are economic benefits, which for businesses there can be, but at a cost on other fronts, particularly quality of life.

  3. 3 Ben Jamin' September 19, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    How can something not created by human effort morally belong to anyone?

    Therein lies the root cause of problems like housing supply and affordability.

    Until the CPRE start answering such questions the countryside will be in peril.

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