[Marxism] Half of England Is Owned by Less Than 1% of Its Population, Researcher Says

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 20 19:02:46 MDT 2019


NY Times, April 20, 2019
Half of England Is Owned by Less Than 1% of Its Population, Researcher Says
By Palko Karasz

LONDON — Land ownership in England, a source of enormous wealth, is 
often shielded by a culture of secrecy harking back to the Middle Ages. 
But a researcher says that after years of digging, he has an answer:

Less than 1 percent of the population — including aristocrats, royals 
and wealthy investors — owns about half of the land, according to “Who 
Owns England,” a book that is to be published in May. And many of them 
inherited the property as members of families that have held it for 
generations — even centuries.

In the book, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, the 
author, Guy Shrubsole, an environmental activist and writer, identifies 
many of the owners and compiles data gathered by peppering public bodies 
with freedom of information requests and combing through the 25 million 
title records in the government’s Land Registry.

He reached a striking conclusion — that in England, home to about 56 
million people, half the country belongs to just 25,000 landowners, some 
of them corporations.

The findings go to the heart of a potent political issue — economic 
inequality — that is roiling nations and feeding populist movements on 
multiple continents. Leaders of the opposition Labour Party seized on 
Mr. Shrubsole’s findings, first published this week in the newspaper The 
Guardian, as evidence for the case they have made for years against the 
governing Conservative Party.


“Don’t let anyone tell you our country doesn’t need radical change,” 
Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, wrote on Twitter as he shared The 
Guardian’s article on Thursday.

Comparison to other developed countries is difficult, because they do 
not have national land registries. Records can be viewed only one at a 
time through hundreds of local registry officers, they are not fully 
open to the public and, as in the United States, ownership can be 
obscured through shell corporations.

But Britain has greater wealth inequality than peers like Germany, 
France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia — though less than the United 
States. And Britain has not seen the kinds of wars and revolutions that 
over centuries wiped away sprawling estates owned by nobility in most of 
Europe.

Who owns the “green and pleasant land” of the English countryside can be 
a well-kept secret, in part because a large segment of it does not even 
figure in public records. Government efforts to make a public accounting 
of land ownership date to the 19th century, but according to the Land 
Registry, about 15 percent of the country’s area, most of it rural, is 
still unrecorded.

“Much of the land owned by the Crown, the aristocracy, and the Church 
has not been registered, because it has never been sold, which is one of 
the main triggers for compulsory registration,” the registry, which 
covers England and Wales, says on its website.

Mr. Shrubsole began documenting England’s estates after the referendum 
on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, known as Brexit, in 
2016. “If Brexit really meant ‘taking back control of our country,’ then 
I’d like at least to know who owns it,” he wrote in an op-ed in The 
Guardian a year after the vote.

Real estate prices in England are among the highest in Europe and have 
soared over the last generation. Mr. Shrubsole’s book documents 
ownership, maps unregistered land and argues that the concentration of 
ownership helps keep available land scarce and expensive.

Houses, stores, office buildings, schools and farms are often held under 
long-term leases, paying a steady stream of rents — directly or through 
intermediate leaseholders — to major landowners.

Mr. Shrubsole said that by publishing his research, he wanted to start a 
conversation.

“It should prompt a proper debate about the need for land reform in 
England,” Mr. Shrubsole said. The issue of land relates to the country’s 
housing crisis, to economic inequality, to climate change and the 
intensive use of farmland, he added.

The ancient idea that wealth meant land does not always hold true in 
modern times. But in Britain, land accounted for half of the country’s 
net worth in 2016, according to data from the Office of National 
Statistics — double that of Germany and higher than in countries like 
France, Canada and Japan.

Britain’s net worth more than tripled between 1995 and 2017, driven 
primarily by the value of land, which rose much faster than other kinds 
of assets.

“The main economic challenge and the social justice issue is that for 
the last 30, 40 years, landowners have enjoyed enormous unearned 
windfall gains at a faster rate than wages or the economy have grown,” 
said Josh Ryan-Collins, head of research at the Institute for Innovation 
and Public Purpose at University College London.

“There is nothing that the landowners have done to earn those incomes,” 
he said.

Even agricultural land has become the object of speculative demand, 
pushing prices and gains for landowners up further, he said.

But even if land reform has not been on the agenda of the Conservative 
government, it has had to address the housing crisis and agricultural 
subsidies. Recently, Conservatives have focused their criticism on the 
European Union’s farming and forestry subsidy system, which has put 
aristocrats, the royal family and wealthy investors among the top 
recipients of taxpayer-funded aid.

Queen Elizabeth II’s estate in Sandringham, north of London, received 
£695,000 in aid in 2017, or more than $900,000, according to a public 
database of payments.

An agriculture bill, currently in Parliament, promises to change farm 
subsidies after Brexit. Instead of direct payments based on the total 
amount of land farmed, payments in the new system would be based on 
factors like contributions to the environment, animal welfare and public 
access to the property.

“As we know, many of the beneficiaries are not even U.K. or E.U. 
citizens, but foreign citizens who happen to have invested in 
agricultural land,” Michael Gove, Britain’s environment secretary, said 
during a debate on the bill in Parliament last year. “It is a simple 
matter of social justice and economic efficiency that we need to change 
that system.”

Most of the European Union is also grappling with concentrated ownership 
of farmland, though not to the same degree. A 2017 report by European 
Parliament lawmakers said that in 2010, 3 percent of farms controlled 
half the agricultural land with in the bloc.

“Agricultural land is not an ordinary traded good, as soil is 
nonrenewable and access to it is a human right,” the report said. “As 
with the concentration of financial wealth, too high a concentration of 
agricultural land splits society, destabilizes rural areas, threatens 
food safety and thus jeopardizes the environmental and social objectives 
of Europe.”

Scotland, where land ownership is in the hands of even fewer people and 
organizations, has enacted a set of land reform laws. In 2004, it 
abolished feudal rules that were still in effect, helping many longtime 
tenants to become outright owners of their land. Other legislation 
introduced the right to roam, giving the public access to vast privately 
held lands.

“The example of successful land reform programs in other countries, like 
Scotland, should give us hope,” Mr. Shrubsole wrote in his book. “Get 
land reform right, and we can go a long way towards ending the housing 
crisis, restoring nature and making our society more equal.”




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