Why radical land reform is needed in the UK

sheep in a grassy field with overcast sky

Half of the land is owned by 1% of the people. Getting information on who owns what land is nigh on impossible. Tax arrangements favour land speculation. Ordinary people cannot get access to land to grow food.

Where is this place? Not a settler country in southern Africa, but the UK. With the publication of a landmark report for the UK Labour Party, Land for the Many, at last equality of land access in Britain is on the political agenda (see comment piece in the Guardian and a short video introduction).

Typically, the right-wing press have got into a frenzy of indignation. According to them, George Monbiot (the lead author, working with a wider team) is going to take your land, destroy farming and tax your front garden. Middle England outrage does not respond to facts and arguments, but promotes misleading tropes. The spectre of Zimbabwe (and Venezuela) was raised in an absurdly ill-informed piece in the UK Daily Mail, which frothed: “What Labour is determined on is a new age of collectivism. Well, we know how disastrously that worked out in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere – famine and starvation”.

Pointing out hidden and stark privilege always raises hackles amongst the ruling class and its media supporters. Look at the past controversies covered on the Zimbabweland blog about the land debate in Scotland, where land inequality is especially extreme. Aristocrats, corporations, the Crown and Oxbridge colleges are all big owners, as well as some nouveau-riche speculative investors. In the arcane system of land taxation, inheritance rules and so on, huge amounts of wealth are tied up by this tiny group.

Suggesting a more democratic, equitable alternative, overturning the accepted status quo, is seen as an assault, even if it makes absolute sense. The outrage that has met the arguments for land reform in Zimbabwe have been voluble, vicious and intense (I know from experience). And again, wildly ill-informed. Just like the Daily Mail, facts are irrelevant when privilege is to be protected. And all this, despite wide acknowledgement that the massively skewed colonial inheritance ran against economic, political and social sense, and that smallholder-led agrarian transformation can generate many gains (although not without challenges, as described many, many times on the Zimbabweland blog).

The report is radical yet practical. There is a welter of suggestions for policy change. Some are very specific to the UK setting, but there is much else in the report that will have resonance elsewhere. A number of themes grabbed my attention.

  • The lack of public transparency – and so accountability – around land ownership is highlighted. You have to pay to view each deed in the land registry, and that means it would cost millions to find out who owns the land in Britain, as the system was privatised, and has to cover its costs. This suits elite landowners, but it doesn’t help those who want to get access to land, as it’s impossible to find out where land is available, and it’s opaque how it is priced. Those who own the land control the system and, with the support of the Daily Mail, they want to keep it that way. Opening up data though helps the democratisation of land ownership, and ensuring citizens are active in the process of deciding how the nation’s land is used.
  • The report recommends that public land – including that owned by local councils – should be put to better use, and prevent it being sold off to speculative investors, especially near urban areas. Such areas could, the report argues, provide the basis for food-growing and employment and the development of local economies, aiming for a more sustainable, local food system, reinvigorating the ‘county farm’ system. An important element of this proposal, includes a focus on rural workers. If the UK leaves the EU, gaining access to labour for farm production will become a big issue, so making the countryside attractive for a range of workers, and ensuring that conditions and rights are assured, and rural work becomes an attractive proposition for younger people.
  • The history of capitalism in Britain (as elsewhere) is one of enclosure. Karl Marx observed long ago that “Land grabbing on a great scale [. . .] is the first step in creating a field for the establishment of agriculture on a great scale. Hence this subversion of agriculture puts on, at first, more the appearance of a political revolution”. Land grabbing and privatisation of land through narrow property titling systems is also a phenomenon across Africa, supported by western corporations and donors. The report suggests that reclaiming the commons, and the spirit of community-based land use, offers many possibilities. Community trusts could own land for their own use or for protecting landscapes, watersheds and other environmental values. And opening up land for community growing in allotments is seen as a priority.
  • There are many interesting proposals around the implications of redistributing land wealth on housing. Addressing inflated land values can help to release areas for building for the poor, and reduce prices of housing. In the UK a huge proportion of the value of housing is in the land, and this continues to increase making housing more expensive, and incentives to capture land for speculative investment rises and rises. Through new forms of land ownership, this could radically change the housing access, shifting where value is held.
  • Tax is talked about a lot in the report. Land taxes – taxes on extreme wealth – can be a highly progressive move, and are long overdue. Addressing issues of underutilisation of land or housing stock is essential in the UK, as it is in Zimbabwe, currently preventing those who could productively use land from doing so. With the financialisation of land and resources, distortions occur and result in rampant speculation as land becomes an ‘asset class’, rather than a collective resource.

Hopefully, once a Labour-led administration is in power in the UK, connections might be forged between the UK and other places where land inequality is constraining a flourishing economy and society. Maybe successful resettlement farmers from Zimbabwe can come to the UK to advise on and learn about ways of putting land to better use. As the report argues, land must be for the many, not the few.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.