Today, as a country, we face huge problems – widening inequality, a chronic housing crisis, a dysfunctional agricultural system, multiple public health issues and impending climate collapse. Land is one of the root causes of these problems but is rarely discussed. Indeed, land has been the elephant in the room of English politics for so long we have become accustomed to its absence during important debates.
The fundamental importance of land becomes clear when you start reframing common questions about the key issues affecting society today:
The housing crisis is partly caused by patterns of land ownership that prevent us building enough new, affordable homes: Britain has the second highest concentration of land ownership in the world with 0.36% of the population owning two-thirds of the land. Despite claims we are running out of land, a recent Office For National Statistics report found that a mere 2% of our country is built on. So is the housing crisis caused by an increasing population or should we be tackling patterns of land ownership that prevent the building of new homes?
The rising cost of land is directly linked to policies that make it lucrative to hoard land and treat it as an investment… Agricultural land is currently seen as safer and more lucrative than stocks and shares, and a way of avoiding tax, regardless of whether it is even being used for farming – indeed prices have trebled in the last ten years. In some parts of the country, landowners see their land increase in value more than a hundred fold just for securing permission to build housing. How can land and housing prices be brought under control when government policies and market speculation actively drive them up?
Inequality finds its oldest expression in the clash between the landed and the poor: A third of UK land is still owned by the traditional aristocracy and landed gentry. 47 wealthy landowners each receive over a million pounds a year in land subsidies, whilst the smallest farms receive nothing. How can we develop a more equal society, whilst giving massive tax breaks and public money to large landowners, at the same time as cutting back on support and services for those in need?
These unhealthy patterns of land ownership and usage have come to dominate much of the rest of the globe. The British government and companies based in the UK are still involved in practices which clear people from their land without their consent. How can we prevent these new land grabs from happening? How can redress the damage caused by colonial practices?
Many public health issues are directly linked to trends in land use. Recent studies have connected issues like cancer, respiratory disease, and poor mental health with city living. Cash-strapped councils have started to sell off public parks and playing fields to plug funding gaps. Tate and Lyle Sugar have received more in agricultural subsidies than any other UK organisation this century. How can we tackle obesity and other health issues whilst subsidies flood the market with low quality, cheap food, and people are disconnected from the outdoors?
Environmental decline is directly linked to mainstream land management: British soils are at a crisis point. Industrial farming methods, deforestation, and land cleared for sport shooting, have all been linked with floods that have devastated the UK in recent years. How can we tackle environmental issues whilst subsidising the industrial farming techniques that help cause them?