The 75th anniversary this week of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District to demand the right to roam is a timely reminder of a deeper and unresolved issue – the private ownership of land in Britain. Organised by the British Workers Sports Federation, the 400 marchers fought a short, pitched battle with keepers to force their way on to the high plateau in Derbyshire. Along the way, they sang The Internationale and the Red Flag. When they returned to their starting point, the leaders were arrested and subsequently jailed. Boycotted initially by the established ramblers’ organisations, the imprisonment of the trespass leaders united all those who wanted the right to walk the hills and peaks. While there is greater access than 75 years ago, much of it is still conditional on the permission of the landowner. Private ownership of land is an essential feature of capitalism. So much so in Britain that is extremely difficult to discover who actually owns land. Kevin Cahill’s Who Owns Britain made a valiant attempt to put the story together, trying to get behind the veil of secrecy that obscures land ownership. He found that:
- 70% of the 60 million acres of land in the UK is owned by 1% of the population
- Just 6,000 or so landowners - mostly aristocrats, but also large institutions and the Crown - own about 40 million acres
- Britain's top 20 land-owning families have bought or inherited an area big enough to swallow up the entire counties of Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire, with more to spare
- A building plot now constitutes between half to two- thirds of the cost of a new house
- 10.9 million homes carry a mortgage of some kind
- The land registry after 76 years of work has still failed to register up to 50% of the land in England.
The shortage of housing has forced land prices higher and higher during the last 20 years. While house prices have risen more than three times, land has gone up even faster. The cost for a hectare in London in 1983 was £759,000; the same land would now cost you £5.5 million, an increase of 624% in land value. Land prices in Wales have grown the fastest. In 1983, a hectare cost just £85,000. By the end of 2002, this had soared to £980,000 - a 1,053% increase. Across the UK, land prices have risen from £174,000 a hectare to nearly £1.6m - an increase of 808%. How land came to be in private hands in the first place is another story that embraces forced enclosures of common land of the 17th and 18th centuries, land handed out by feudal monarchs to aristocratic families for services rendered and accumulation for speculation by capitalists. Either way, it is robbery on a massive and historic scale of a natural resource that is literally the foundation of society. The case for taking land out of private ownership to hold it in common for the benefit of society is unanswerable.
Paul Feldman, communications editor