PHO705 Week 15: Who Owns England?

Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England? (Shrubsole 2019) is one of many books about England’s lopsided and inequitable distribution of wealth and property. In terms of its relevance to my Final Major Project, Shrubsole’s book offers something of a coda to Standing’s Plunder of the Commons (Standing 2019). Whereas Standing is interested in the history of how we came to be where we are, and what to do about it going forward, Shrubsole offers more of a journalistic investigation of the present day.

Even so, Shrubsole’s book is full of facts and figures that are enough to make the blood boil.

  • Nearly half of Berkshire is owned by just thirty individuals or organisations (Shrubsole 2019: 7).
  • Intensive agriculture has led to a 56 per cent decline in farm birds since 1970 (Shrubsole 2019: 12).
  • 90 per cent of the land in England remains off-limits to the public (Shrubsole 2019: 17).
  • The biggest beneficiaries of UK farm subsidies have been the Queen, the Duke of Westminster, a Saudi prince, a billionaire, some 17 dukes and 14 marquesses (Shrubsole 2019: 106-7).
  • Grouse moors cover some 550,000 acres of England, an area larger than Greater London, but their management encourages flash flooding whose cost on homes and infrastructure is borne by the taxpayer (Shrubsole 2019: 95-8).
  • Many land-owners have registered their assets in offshore trusts and corporations. As such these entities have no interest in quality of life or ecological stewardship and their opaque nature raises questions of tax evasion and democratic accountability (Shrubsole 2019: 129-32).
  • The Crown Estates and the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall exist as a ‘quasi-feudal political economy’ covering some 450,000 acres of England. They enjoy numerous parliamentary exemptions putting them, in effect, beyond democratic control and oversight (Shrubsole 2019: 45-73).
  • A new interest in mineral rights has led to a rush by Church Commissioners, Dukes, Earls and corporations to lay claim to the ground under people’s homes, regardless of the damage and pollution that may result (from, e.g., fracking) (Shrubsole 2019: 71-2, 91).

Shrubsole makes clear that England has never been a property-owning democracy. Less than 10 per of the land in England is now owned by the public in terms of domestic homes, gardens, allotments, commons and so on (Shrubsole 2019: 233). Much of the remainder is owned by a handful of institutions: the Crown, the State (8.5 per cent), a hereditary aristocracy and landed gentry, the Church, and modern corporations (18 per cent). Fewer than thirty individuals – the Dukes – own more than 10 per cent of the land in England (Shrubsole 2019: 306-7). Only 2 per cent is owned by conservation charities such as the RSPB. Overall, just 36,000 people, or 0.06 per cent of the population, own more than half of all the rural land in England and Wales (Shrubsole 2019: 21, 296-307).

Like Standing, Shrubsole is documenting the outcome of processes that have been going on for many centuries. From the perspective of my Final Major Project, what his book makes clear is that remarkably little has changed in the years since 1596. So, as with Standing’s book, this is a powerful incentive to see the landscape as a theatre of economic, social and political relations, much of it hidden by those who do not want their wealth exposed to view. The English landscape is not about pastoral idylls no matter how strongly our culture may promote them. It is good to remember this statement, from the seventeenth century: ‘The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword’ (Gerrard Winstanley, in Shrubsole 2019: 78-9).

However, these is a caveat here. For all its value as investigative reporting, Shrubsole’s book is in the end more of a list of facts and figures. Facts and figures do not make for interesting photography books. Missing are emotion, poetry, involvement, lived experience and the sense of being there. For that I am looking at books on rural life such as Meadowland (Lewis-Stempel 2015), English Pastoral (Rebanks 2020) and Field Work (Bathurst 2021).

References

BATHURST, Bella. 2021. Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land. London: Profile Books.

LEWIS-STEMPEL, John. 2015. Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. London: Black Swan.

REBANKS, James. 2020. English Pastoral: An Inheritance. London: Allen Lane.

SHRUBSOLE, Guy. 2019. Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Land and How to Take It Back. London: William Collins.

STANDING, Guy. 2019. Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. London: Pelican.