As part of my proposed research into the future of agricultural employment in the United Kingdom, I will need to look at the historical issues over land ownership. I want to show how this history might put the country in a poor position with regards to any attempted trend towards smaller, more sustainable farms and away from larger farms with their increased environmental damage and greater social inequality.
Land ownership is not a common topic of discussion in the UK, which makes books such as Kevin Cahill’s Who Owns Britain all the more interesting. Cahill has much experience as a wealth and rich list researcher, having worked on the original Sunday Times Rich List and many others since.
It was written in 2001, following the reform of the House of Lords. Cahill writes:
Time may yet show that the only truly revolutionary act of the first Blair government was the ejection of the hereditaries from the House of Lords, and with it that chamber’s inbuilt Tory majority. This act was utterly profound, as it broke the umbilical cord between the landed and the heart of power at Westminster, a cord that had survived even the creation of a universal franchise in the country.
Much of the book is focused on the 1872 publication of The Return of Owners of Land, which listed the owners of all land in the UK, and is something which the Land Registry has failed to do since:
In the case of… England and Wales, between 30% and 50% of the acreage of the two countries in unregistered… The cost of privately owning (the 1872 Returns) was the modern equivalent of about £70. The cost of the complete set from the four land registries today would be about £150 million pounds, if it were available, which it is not.
Cahill then details how the Crown Estate and the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall have enabled the royal family to stay immensely wealthy. He also shows how other institutional landowners such as the forestry commission are deeply conservative with regards to their organisation.
The book contains a lot of Cahill’s research into the UK’s large estates and the respective landowners, most of which highlights the strong family and educational links between them (Plantagenets, Eton and Oxbridge occur frequently).
The second half of the book is full of information on this landownership, showing the top 10 landowners from 1872 in every county and some of those from 2001. This provides some interesting trivia, such as the description of Wogan Phillips:
…the only communist peer in the House of Lords, having fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republic…
whose family seat was at Llanstephan House, Glasbury.
Perhaps more useful from my perspective is Cahill’s analysis of how the aristocracy gained control of the land in the UK, in 3 or 4 major land grabs – the Norman conquest, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, Oliver Cromwell’s Republic, and finally the enclosures and the clearances. These last had a major impact on the country:
What we have here then is a confluence of two enormously important economic factors. The first is the shifting of the population into towns, into the colonies or into graves…. It left the law in the hands of those who controlled the bulk of the land… The second effect was of equal importance. It emptied the countryside and defined the scale of the rural population at much the same levels at which it now exists. And by doing so it created a vast surplus acreage, should agriculture ever become uneconomic.
Cahill hints at the differences between the UK and other European countries, most of which have undergone revolutions or had at least some land reform, but the only one which he covers in some detail is Ireland.
He states that at the time of the potato famines, between 1845 and 1849:
…616 major landlords who owned 95% of the island rented it to the peasants… (These peasants) rented a marginal number of acres, not in return for a share of the sale of the crops or cattle, but for the right to sow and reap a crop of potatoes on which they lived. The landlord took the non-potato crop.
In 1876, the same year The Return of Owners of Land was produced for Ireland, the Landlord and Tenant Act was passed by the government, enabling Irish tenants to buy some of the land from their mostly English landlords. Various purchasing schemes were carried out until the Irish government eventually closed the Land Commission in the year 2000. Cahill notes how these schemes often benefited the landlords as much as the tenants, with public money being used to help relieve them of unprofitable estates. The impact of the purchases on the type of farms in the country was great:
In the space of about 60 years, from 1870 to 1930, 13 million acres… had been taken over and sold to owner occupiers. This transfer created about 413,000 tenant farmers and families, all living on their own farms.
Cahill writes on modern Ireland:
The country has a population of 3.5 million people. Private home ownership in the Republic stands at 82.2% of all homes. There are 149,000 farms in the republic, of which 97% are family owned, at an average size of 64 acres… The basis of ownership is use: use of urban land for homes, use of rural land for farming. There is no gap between ownership and use. The owners are the users.
This type of agrarian reform, whereby land ownership is moved into the hands of the people who work that land, is a vital part of Food Sovereignty, the alternative to simple Food Security espoused by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. As Cahill shows, this family ownership of farmland in Ireland contrasts with the rest of the British Isles:
In the two UK countries (England and Wales) about one third of the 175,238 farms are tenanted… (The UN) refuses aid to South American countries with a less intense concentration of land ownership than Scotland, unless land reform programmes, including the redistribution of land, are undertaken.
Cahill’s main standpoint on land is that it is unfair that the people of the UK are forced onto a small amount of urban land and then forced to pay council tax, despite the vast landholdings of the wealthy receiving huge agricultural subsidies, either directly or in rent from tenant farmers.
The capacity of the aristocratic landowners to retain their lands and treasures has not arisen from any productive use they have made of the land, or even from renting it out, but has come from trickling the rural land they own onto the urban market… Morally they have never paid the price for extinguishing the British peasantry from the lands of the United Kingdom… they can continue to rob the population through sophisticated raids on the public purse, and they continue to be able to decimate the real users of rural land, tenant farmers…
The Republic of Ireland has, more or less, prepared itself for the post industrial world… by having a balanced distribution of land ownership based on use. The UK has failed to do this and is in danger of being unable to manage the future as the population, trapped in towns designed with manufacturing in mind, no longer function. All UK economics remain a derivative of the unreconstructed capitalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In his concluding chapter, Cahill takes a swipe at certain environmentalists such as Jonathan Porritt as the eton-educated son of a baron with royal connections:
…(Porritt’s) environmentalism comes coloured by his background and without any apparent reference to the real facts of how the countryside is owned and what that means or might mean.
It is relatively easy to find Porritt being referenced in a Sustainable Development Commission report from 2002 as being strongly for the reform of agricultural subsidies:
As is now almost universally acknowledged, current farming practices are seriously unsustainable – economically, socially and environmentally. And the problem is the taxpayer encouraging unsustainable production through current farm subsidies – here and in other countries.
However there is room to look at how people such as Porritt, Prince Charles (admired by many greens but de facto owner of vast swathes of the country) and Tracey Worcester (maker of the pro-family farming film Pig Business but married to the Marquess of Worcester who owns 30,000 acres) view land ownership and the tenant farming system. As Cahill notes:
…between £800 million and £1.2 billion of the agricultural subsidy passes directly from tenant farmers to landowners as rent.
Another related issue, which I feel is not covered sufficiently in this book, is that of planning. While land availability is certainly an issue when ownership is concentrated as it is in the UK, it is very difficult to get planning permission to build in the open countryside anyway. There are small signs of change on this front, such as the eco-village Lammas getting planning permission in south-west Wales. However, the cost of access to small-scale farming for most people is prohibitive due to the price of currently existing properties.
The book, which is now out of print, has dated to a certain extent. One of the principle themes running throughout is that the Republic of Ireland is in a much stronger economic position than the UK due to their more equal distribution of land. However, Ireland has been hit hard by the credit crunch, a property-related problem.
Cahill believes that the amount of domestic food production can be reduced due to international trade and other factors, as can be seen by his study of modern-day farming in Ireland:
It is interesting to see what has happened to the 413,000 peasant farmers who became owners of their own farms through the land acts up to about 1930… In 1998, the number had fallen to 149,500, a fall of almost three quarters… The average farm size is clearly far too small at 64.2 acres… What the figures tell us is that farming is neither financially justifiable nor economically meaningful…
I must disagree with Cahill’s conclusions here. Due to pressures on energy and water this century, among other considerations, it is likely that food production will need to increase in the British Isles. He doesn’t distinguish between types of agriculture; his main problem is with the large landowners gaining subsidies simply for either keeping the land fallow, or indirectly in rent from their tenant farms.
The larger farms he suggests are necessary in Ireland, and presumably in the UK, would come with associated social and environment problems. Once poorly paid agricultural jobs are created on these farms, they will no longer fit into the “owners are the users” framework he celebrated elsewhere.
Cahill also doesn’t mention farming corporations, despite them being some of the main beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies. In 2001, when the book was published, the Ministry of Agriculture was refusing to name the recipients of agricultural grants. However, since then and due largely to the work of a group of journalists and researchers, this information is now available at farmsubsidy.org.
As was to be expected, this book is lacking in a certain amount of agricultural analysis, but nevertheless provides an important insight into the issues of landownership in the British Isles, both historical and current. If the book was ever to be updated, or a similar one written, I would hope for more information on the following:
Post-devolution land reform in Scotland;
The continued efforts, or not, of the Land Registry;
Information on large corporations buying up land for intensive farming;
The general trend towards larger farms due to the economies of scale forced on farmers by supermarkets;
The British planning system and its effect on land ownership and use;
More information on the history of and limits on landholdings abroad; and
A detailed analysis of agricultural subsidies.
Who Owns Britain and Ireland – Cahill’s site which includes much of the land ownership details from the book.
The land is ours – A landrights campaign for Britain.
This land is ours – or is it? – Article by Ellen Kemp, with more on agricultural subsidies and the history of land reform.
Why you’ll never find execution or eviction on a National Trust tea towel – Article by George Monbiot on the National Trust’s new allotments.