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Property scandal

A few rich people, many of them aristocrats, own 69 per cent of the land in Britain. As a result, house prices are so high, millions can’t afford to buy a home. The NS launches a campaign to end this feudal system. By Jason Cowley

For the past decade I have spent a week or so each year staying with family in the quiet Cumbrian village of Cark-in-Cartmel. The village is off the tourist track, south of the Lake District and a short drive from Lake Windermere, and an even shorter distance from the village of Cartmel, with its tight, cobbled streets, its racecourse, second-hand bookshops, tea shops and its exceptionally fine 12th-century priory church. The first time I visited Cark, I noticed something peculiar: most of the cottages and certainly all of the farms and outbuildings in the village and surrounding area were painted the same colour, what can only be described as kingfisher blue. These, I was told, were estate properties belonging to or leased from the Cavendish family, whose neo-Elizabethan mansion, Holker Hall, originally built in 1610 and partly rebuilt in the 19th century following a fire, is in the village of Cark.

Holker Estate owns more than 15,000 acres of land in south Cumbria, land that is used for anything from tourism to farming to commercial caravan sites. The estate controls the gates to the foreshore of Morecambe Bay, and thus has jurisdiction over fishing and cockling rights along this part of the remote Cumbrian coastline, from which, on a clear day, you can see in the far distance the ominous massing of the Heysham nuclear power station.

The owner of Holker Hall, Hugh Cavendish (Lord Cavendish of Furness), is part of the extended, intricate and secretive “cousinhood” – the 6,000 aristocratic families and their relatives who still own most of Britain and who, before the recent eviction of hereditary peers, exerted their influence and control over land ownership through the House of Lords. The present head of the Cavendish family is Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire. His father, Andrew, died in May this year. He was married to Deborah Mitford – the youngest of the six famous sisters, two of whom, Unity and Diana, were fascist-fanciers – and was celebrated in his obituaries as a kind of archetypal establishment toff: racehorse owner, one-time Tory activist, arts dilettante.

The Cavendish family, which first began to acquire vast tracts of land following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and consolidated its wealth and position through marriage within the aristocracy, owns 65,000 acres of land in Britain and another 8,000 in the Republic of Ireland. Their residences include Chatsworth in Derbyshire, which attracts more than half a million paying visitors each year, as well as Holker Hall, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Bolton Hall in Yorkshire, Compton Place in Eastbourne and several grand houses in central London.

Why should this one family, and others like them, own so much land when so many young people cannot afford to buy even a one-bedroomed flat? It is not impertinent to ask this question, nor is the motivation for asking it envy. Rather, in a period of prohibitively expensive property prices, when so many first-time buyers are shut out from the housing market; when we are continually being told that there is a shortage of new houses in the country and of land for building on; when asylum-seekers and economic migrants are made to feel unwelcome in our overcrowded towns – it is surely time that land reform in Britain once more became a matter for urgent political concern.

The United Kingdom is 60 million acres in size, of which 41 million are designated “agricultural” land, 15 million are “waste” (forests, rivers, mountains and so on) and owned mainly by the Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission, and four million are “urban plot”, the land on which most of the 60 million people of these islands live. In sum, 69 per cent of the acreage of Britain is owned by 0.6 per cent of the population. Or, more pertinently, 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land while 24 million families live on four million acres.

Spain (where 70 per cent of the land is owned by 0.2 per cent of the population) is the only other European country in which so much land is concentrated in the hands of so few, if you exclude pseudo countries such as Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Monaco. Even in Brazil, where the white elite have ruled with impunity for so long, land is more evenly distributed through-out the general population than it is in Britain.

“There is a myth in this country,” says Kevin Cahill, author of the seminal Who Owns Britain (Canongate, 2001), “that land is scarce. It is not scarce. There is 41 million acres out there, about one-third of it so uneconomic that it has to be subsidised, hidden behind nothing but a myth. The problem is that there is simply not enough land coming on to the market for housing, which puts fierce pressure on the little land that is available, and thus dramatically inflates its price.”

The hereditary landowners have been adept at protecting their interests – making plentiful land look scarce, and being paid from the public purse to keep it that way. The Land Act 1925 requires all land transactions in England and Wales to be registered. Registration is necessary only once a sale has been made; as such, many of the large estates, where ownership passes on through generations of the same family, have not been registered; to date, roughly 35 per cent of land in England and Wales remains unregistered. The Land Act was never debated in the Commons. Responsibility for debate was abdicated to the House of Lords, where the law was passed without discussion.

One of the reasons why landowners are so resistant to change, and indeed to registering just how much land they own, is that they receive huge subsidies, funded by British taxpayers through the European Union, simply for owning designated agricultural land that is frequently unproductive. (See the table on the next page.) Subsidy allows landowners to retain very expensive assets, while ensuring that not enough land reaches the market.

At the same time, the rest of us – ordinary homeowners – are squeezed into ever smaller units of land and charged a punitive council tax. “In short,” Cahill says, “money is being taken out of your pocket to enhance the assets of the rich, who, in their role of landowners, pay no tax. This is a huge fiddle and a scandal. To restore normal economics to the market place, the subsidy has to end and landowners have to come off the public payroll. They are not civil servants.”

When I contacted Holker Estate to speak to Lord Cavendish, I was redirected to someone called Dickon Knight, the good lord’s land agent. In well-modulated tones, he told me that the great landowners of Britain were “stewards” of the land: that without their presence, their care and their diligence, the British countryside would not be as well preserved as it is, or as attractive to tourists. “The estate takes a very paternalistic view of the local community,” he told me. “Through farming, forestry, tourism and conservation, we contribute significantly to the vitality of the local economy. We also have common land, which the estate owns but over which other people have rights. Where you find large estates in the country you will find that the surrounding countryside is extraordinarily well cared for.”

How did Lord Cavendish come to own so much land? “Through purchases and through transfers of land among families following marriages,” said Knight.

Should land be redistributed from the large estates to the state to allow for housebuilding? “The present advice from the government is not to build on open countryside. We can only work through the present system.”

In her powerful book World on Fire (Heinemann, 2003), Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, writes of how many of the world’s developing nations are dominated economically by ethnic elites which comprise a small percentage of the overall population: the Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Jews in Russia, white settlers in Zimbabwe (who are now in hasty and demoralised retreat), the Lebanese in West Africa, white people of European origin in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, the Igbos in Nigeria. Chua argues that free markets concentrate wealth in the hands of the “market-dominant minority” even as experiments with democracy increasingly empower the often impoverished majority population. The result can be a potentially catastrophic ethnonationalism, “pitting a frustrated indigenous majority, easily aroused by opportunistic vote-seeking politicians, against a resented, wealthy ethnic minority”.

The British aristocracy is, I would argue, a genuine market-dominant minority: centuries of inbreeding, to keep the bloodlines “pure”, have created a tribe, a racially distinct sub-group of people who resemble one another, who have the same absurdly affected accents, who go to the same few schools, who protect each other’s interests and who continue to exert their control over the land through the armed forces, the Conser- vative Party and the media, notably the Daily Telegraph, the country’s bestselling broadsheet newspaper. Today, as with other market-dominant minorities elsewhere in the world, the landowning classes of Britain are threatened not by revolution, but by greater democracy – as represented by the rapid extension of home ownership.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, author of The Mystery of Capital: why capitalism triumphs in the west and fails everywhere else (Basic Books, 2000), has argued that a country cannot be considered truly free and democratic until most of the population owns a stake in the land. If developing nations are ever to thrive, then the poor of those nations must be granted legal title to their homes and businesses. Without property rights the poor cannot realise the value of the land on which they live and work; this has been the case in much of Africa, where people are forced to rely on extralegal and informal arrangements and where the untitled land of the poor is, as de Soto puts it, “dead capital”.

This was largely the situation in Britain little more than a century ago. In 1873, when the four-volume Return of Owners of Land was published – a kind of second Domesday Book (the first was compiled in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest) – all land and homes in the United Kingdom were owned by just 3.6 per cent of the population of 27 million. “The key point,” says Cahill, “is that 96.4 per cent of the population owned nothing at all, not a blade of grass. Now, and this is the great transformation, 69 per cent of the 24 million families in the country have two things. They own a home, of which 28 per cent are mortgage-free. And they have the vote. What they lack, however, is information. They have never used the first fact, their transformation into landowners, to make the second fact, their power to vote, effective in their own interest. Homeowners are the power in the democracy, but no one’s told them.”

It is time for the ordinary homeowner to know that he or she is being cheated into believing that land is scarce, and that the government, with its stipulations that new housebuilding programmes should be carried out on brownfield rather than on greenfield sites, is culpable in this conspiracy of ignorance. Landowners of Britain have had it comfortable for far too long, benefiting through quirks of birth from the great land thefts of British history – the Norman Conquest, Henry VIII’s seizure of monastic land, Oliver Cromwell’s capture of church and Crown land and the enclosures of common land from the end of the 17th century up to the mid-19th century. Not only have they excluded ramblers from their vast estates, they have charged the rest of us for entering their lavish and ostentatious stately homes.

So why isn’t land reform a more urgent matter? Why is the Labour government silent on the issue? One isn’t advocating Robert Mugabe-style land grabs, though it would be fascinating to observe how the nation might respond to the simultaneous invasion of country estates by thousands of well-drilled and motivated squatters. Yet something must be done to address this scandal of inequality. With interest rates rising and with property prices at a dangerous and unsustainable height, the second wave of repossessions may not be too far away. If people begin to lose their homes, as they did in the early 1990s, it will not be long before they begin asking why they are forced to pay so much for property; who exactly owns the most valuable resource of this nation, its land; how they came to own it; why these rights of ownership should be subsidised; and what can be done definitively to shift the balance of power.

Jason Cowley is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

The UK’s top five landowners (excluding the Crown Estate, the Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission)

Duke of Buccleuch Acreage: 270,900 Value: £598m Subsidy Entitlement: £20.4m

Estate of Atholl dukedom Acreage: 147,000 Value: £200m Subsidy Entitlement: £11.0m

Duchy of Cornwall Acreage: 141,000 Value: £480m Subsidy Entitlement: £10.6m

Duke of NorthumberlandAcreage: 132,000 Value: £463m Subsidy Entitlement: £9.9m

Duke of Westminster(excl London) Acreage: 129,000 Value: £450m Subsidy Entitlement: £9.2m

The figures are based on: a) a price of £3,992 for a good arable acre in the UK in the second quarter of 2004; b) a subsidy entitlement of 113 per acre, which a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs considered (August 2004) to be “perfectly reasonable to assign” where an acreage is publicly known. Note, however, that information about actual subsidies is not available. Research: Kevin Cahill



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