1. Introduction: the lie of the land

Almost everyone agrees that Britain suffers from a series of chronic problems. Inequality continues to grow, and the distribution of wealth is even more uneven than the distribution of income, restricting social mobility. The economic power of those who benefit from this disparity translates into political power, compromising democracy. Economic instability caused by inflating asset values threatens periodic financial crises.

The quality and quantity of public space is insufficient to meet our needs for recreation and tranquillity. Children in many boroughs have few places in which to play, as shared spaces have been filled by cars. The outdoor lives enjoyed by previous generations have been replaced by indoor living, often associated with unfitness, obesity and alienation.

Housing is scarcely affordable and does not meet our needs. For many young people, owning a home now seems a distant and improbable dream. People pay inordinate rents for cramped and squalid accommodation. Those who can buy often have to devote much of their lifetime income to mortgage repayments. Two decades ago, the average working family needed to save for three years to afford a deposit. Today, it must save for 19 years.[1]

Small farms are being incorporated into large ones at astonishing speed, while the abundance and diversity of wildlife are collapsing, threatening a silent spring.

Successive governments have sought to address all these predicaments, yet they endure. It is our belief that one of the reasons for their persistence is a failure to attend to the use and control of land.

The current distribution of landed property drives a potent spiral of wealth accumulation. The money that the owners of valuable property harvest in the form of rent and capital appreciation allows them to buy more property, which in turn enables them to increase their capital and rental income. Land now accounts for 51% of the UK’s net worth, compared to 26% in Germany.[2] The value of land has increased from around £1 trillion in 1995 to over £5 trillion today.[3]

Most of this rise in value is the result of speculative inflation, rather than improvements. “Land,” Winston Churchill argued in 1909, “is by far the greatest of monopolies”[4]. The owner of an empty house or derelict plot of land “has only to sit still and watch complacently his property multiplying in value… without either effort or contribution on his part”.

But the land and housing market is a zero sum game: such windfall rewards are mirrored by the deprivation and exclusion of others. Sometimes the impacts of inflated housing costs are easy to spot, such as with the growing numbers of rough sleepers, and families crammed into homes designed for single occupancy.

But rising housing costs also inflict less visible pain: longer commuting times and the exclusion of people on low incomes from neighbourhoods with good schools, jobs and transport links. They are priced out not because bricks and mortar have suddenly become more expensive, but because land values have risen 544% since 1995,[5] far outpacing any growth in real incomes. By 2016, the cost of land accounted, on average, for 70% of the price of a home.[6]

As Thomas Piketty explained in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century,[7] such spirals do not break down by themselves. Without political action, the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. A new era of patrimonial wealth expansion, caused by a reduction in tax and regulation, drives us towards the extreme inequality last witnessed in Britain a century ago.

The sensible use of land is crucial to economic stability. But successive governments have allowed it to be treated like a pile of chips in a casino. Leveraged speculation on land and houses has created, in some parts of the country, potential bubbles. Because speculators amplify both upwards and downwards house price movements, the treatment of homes as financial assets exposes both householders and the national economy to systemic risk.

These problems are compounded by a tax system that rewards the use of land as a speculative asset. Without significant penalties for leaving homes empty, profligacy and deprivation exist side by side.

When land is granted planning permission for a change of use – such as from agriculture to housing – the owner is likely to receive a vast windfall gain. In some cases, the value of the land can rise 100-fold or more, overnight. This uplift in land value, also known as planning gain, has been created by society, and in fairness should largely belong to society. But society must pay extravagant fees to the beneficiaries, in the form of the house prices and rents that incorporate this uplift. This transfer of wealth deprives communities and local authorities of the resources that could address many of their needs.

An imbalance in the use and ownership of land also crowds out public amenities. The expansion of private space at the expense of public space shuts down opportunities to pursue pleasure, fitness and peace of mind, creating deprivation. In privately owned public spaces (‘POPS’) – squares and parks that appear to be public but are possessed and controlled by private companies – the owners can determine what we do, restricting civic and political life.

The European farm subsidy system has interacted disastrously with our high concentration of rural land ownership. Because the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy pays farmers by the hectare, some landowners are able to harvest millions of pounds of public money. Many smallholders, by contrast, are cut out of the payments system altogether. Subsidies have helped inflate the speculative value of rural land, which in turn stimulates the further concentration of ownership. The number of English farms has declined by a fifth in the past ten years.

County Farms, owned by councils, have for decades offered young people a way into farming, but privatisation and austerity have caused half of them to be sold off since the late 1970s. Many people long for an allotment to grow fresh food of their own, yet ten times more land is devoted to golf courses.

Public access to rural land is essential for our health and wellbeing, and to address the alienation of children and adults from the natural world. The laws of trespass have kept us out of our own country. Successive Labour governments have sought to redress this injustice, setting up National Parks in 1949 and instigating a Right to Roam in 2000.. But the Right to Roam covers just 10% of the land in England and Wales.[8] In some counties, particularly in upland areas, there are large expanses of accessible land; in others, almost none.

For too long, the political economy of land in Britain has been ignored in public life. Our land should serve the many, not just the few.

Private sufficiency, public luxury

The aim of this report is to argue for changes in the way land is used and controlled in the United Kingdom, to meet social needs, enhance environmental quality and create cohesive, empowered communities and a more stable, effective economy. This shift will help to ensure that the UK becomes a more equal, inclusive and generous-spirited nation, with a stronger sense of togetherness and belonging.

As land is both finite and indispensable, it should be used strategically to meet the needs of all. Governments have both a right and a duty to intervene to meet the need for low-cost and secure housing, excellent public services and amenities, green space and wildlife refuges.

The pursuit of luxury has been a common theme among thinkers on both right and left. But it is evident that there is neither the physical nor the ecological space for everyone to enjoy private luxury. If we all sought to own our own tennis courts, swimming pools, playbarns and art collections, Newcastle would need to expand to the size of London, and London would cover much of England.

But there is enough physical and ecological space for everyone to enjoy public luxury. We have room, even on these crowded islands, for magnificent parks, playing fields, public swimming pools, urban nature reserves and allotments sufficient to meet the needs of all. The expansion of public wealth in land creates more space for everyone, while the expansion of private wealth in land reduces the space available for others, at the cost of most people’s quality of life. The guiding principle of this report is private sufficiency and public luxury.

We set out what we believe are the most effective means of ensuring that everyone has sufficient access to the physical fabric of this nation. Where imbalances in political and economic power have led to exclusion, we seek a new equilibrium. Where centuries of enclosure (that continues by economic means today[9]) have permitted a small number of people to extract wealth through economic rent from a much greater number, we seek a more inclusive political economy.

Sometimes this will require more government involvement than exists today, but we do not intend that this should be only a state-led project. We propose a better balance between the four major pillars of the economy: the market, state, household and commons. One of the roles of the state is to support strong and confident communities that are better able to manage their own lives and resources.

The most neglected of the four pillars in public discourse is the commons. A commons consists of three elements: a resource (such as a plot of land); a community, that manages and principally controls the resource; and the rules and negotiations the community develops to secure its management. A true commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing. Relevant examples in existence today include Community Land Trusts and Allotment Associations.

Common resources are inalienable (they cannot be sold or given away, but should be managed in perpetuity), and either their use or their production tends to be shared on an equal basis. Because of these features, common resources are often managed more sustainably than those controlled by private interests.

One of our aims in pursuing a more balanced use of land is to expand the commons, strengthening community and providing greater opportunities for community groups to co-produce housing, amenities and shared spaces. In doing so, we create a wider range of economic options.

We also expand the space available to everyone. For example, in community housing developments, rather than chopping the available space into coffin-sized gardens, there is an opportunity for everyone to use a much larger common space, in which children have room to play and adults have somewhere to meet, to garden and to connect.

By recognising the importance of land and by breaking the destructive spirals of accumulation and deprivation, we will help to create a fairer society. By reviving community, built in our neighbourhoods, we can recover a sense of agency and belonging. By regaining our place in the land, we reclaim our role as active citizens. The proposals in this report, which are practical and evidence-based, seek to ensure that a good, fulfilling life is available to everyone.[10]

Next: Chapter 2: Unlocking Information »

[1]  A. Corlett and L. Judge, 2017. Home affront: housing across the generations, London, Resolution Foundation.

[2] Office for National Statistics. 2018. The UK national balance sheet estimates: 2018.

[3] Office for National Statistics. 2018. Aggregate land values 1995-2016. Freedom of Information Request.

[4]  Land Value Taxation Campaign, February 2010. Winston Churchill Said It All Better than We Can.

[5] Office for National Statistics. 2018. Aggregate land values 1995-2016. Freedom of Information Request.

[6] Office for National Statistics, 2017. UK National Balance Sheet Estimates.

[7] T. Piketty, 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[8] Marion Shoard, ‘Into the Woods’, The Land Magazine, Issue 22, January 2018.

[9] Brett Christophers, 2018. The New Enclosure: The appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain.  London, Verso.

[10] We recognise that the legal and policy environment in relation to land varies across the different nations of the United Kingdom. While we have not sought to comprehensively map each recommendation across each nation, we have endeavoured to highlight instances where key recommendations apply differently, or do not apply, to certain nations.