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Monday 13 May 2019

Review: Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England?

This is a readable, accessible book which roams much wider than its title. It provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject of land ownership. In the first half I felt I was being reminded of things I already knew from Private Eye and The Financial Times but as the book progressed I learnt many new things - for example, about English land reform movements in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, including the role of the National Trust,  and then about more recent and extensive actual land reforms in Scotland which the author thinks point the way for reforms in England.

Shrubsole correctly makes the case for believing that land is different from other goods. It is finite and we all depend on it in many ways. For this and other reasons, it’s important to know who owns it and for that knowledge to be in the public domain even though it deprives owners of a kind of privacy which we might accept for other goods - no one, for example, is arguing for a register of all oil paintings in private homes, something which would have the great disadvantage of being of great value to burglars. Land can’t be carted away - at least, not by an averagely equipped burglar. 

Everyone’s dependence on land for food, water, housing, recreation and so on, also creates a very strong case for its ownership and use to be publicly regulated even where land is not publicly owned.

Shrubsole focusses mainly on rural land and in that context makes much of the historical importance of common land - the commons of the past - and the importance now of publicly accessible land, land made accessible by “right to roam” legislation. He emphasises just how much land is privately owned and how few people own it.

 I felt that he would benefit from an over-arching concept of public space which gets used by theorists of the city to think about pavements, parks, and so on, and the way they are separate from though sometimes encroached upon by private spaces. Using the concept of public space, one can think not only about rights but also responsibilities. What we call public space is also the space where anti-social behaviour occurs, which is an important reason why so much of it is degraded; it’s not just the consequence of austerity budgets but of human disregard - littering the most obvious example. 

In the countryside context, Shrubsole only once mentions dogs (page 252). But one of the harsh realities of contemporary public space is that dog owners regard it as provided primarily for the benefit of an ever expanding number of dogs. The amount of public space from which dogs are excluded is pitifully small: think only of those small, fenced off and overcrowded children’s playgrounds surrounded by acres of land more or less monopolised by dog walkers. Walkers in the open countryside have to contend fairly constantly  with exciteable off-the leash dogs.

Shrubsole documents the power of the land-owning lobby, exercised over the centuries to secure more land for itself (the enclosures), and later on, tax breaks and subsidies. Any programme of reform faces a thanklessl task, not least in an England now with a much weakened administrative and political system in which voters have ceased to give governments the kind of thumping majorities which allow them to face down lobbyists and donors. Shrubsole tries to point a path to a better future. I fear it will be an uphill struggle, not helped by the fact that younger people, who are supposed to be more environmentally conscious, do not vote with anything like the enthusiasm of the elderly.

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