Land Reform and Mass Trespass
October 7, 2004 11:24 PM   Subscribe

A campaign for land reform in Britain. 'A few rich people, many of them aristocrats, own 69 per cent of the land in Britain. As a result, house prices are so high, millions can't afford to buy a home.' (New Statesman) Related :- freedom to roam (from the Ramblers' Association site), the 'independent' Isle of Eigg, the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 (and a news report from the era).
posted by plep (23 comments total)
Yeah... sucks to live there.
posted by wfrgms at 12:09 AM on October 8, 2004

I'm curious - I had thought that access to public footpaths was legal all over England - how does this relate to the "right to roam"?
posted by jb at 12:20 AM on October 8, 2004

Great, another bunch of whiners trying to use the government to seize other people's property.
posted by Spacelegoman at 12:26 AM on October 8, 2004

The reason house prices in this country are so high has nothing to do with the landowners. It has everything to do with a shortage of houses, the stock market crash of '99, and the fact that normal people bought into the rising market with a vigour and a greed which was disgusting.

Landowners have always owned a lot of land. This didn't cause the rise and then fall of house prices in the eighties, and it hasn't caused it now.

For every friend I have that proudly tells me how much their house now costs, I just can't help but think that (a) If I'd joined the housing market later then I couldn't afford the house I live in now, and (b) I earn an OK wage. The fact that normal people can barely afford to house themselves pisses me off. This is trickle up economics at its worse, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
posted by seanyboy at 12:43 AM on October 8, 2004

House prices are high because Britain is an extremely densely populated isand. The figures are further skewed by the fact that almost all of Britain's population lives in England, which is about half the land mass.

jb: Yes, there are ancient footpaths all over the country which are a public right of way, even when that footpath goes over someone's land. Over the centuries, access to some of these footpaths has become blocked by landowners, and "right to roam" is about restoring the public's right to access these paths.

Spacelegoman: Of the people who own a disproportionate amount of land in Britain, I would guess that very few actually earned it.
posted by salmacis at 12:51 AM on October 8, 2004

House prices are high because Britain is an extremely densely populated island. The figures are further skewed by the fact that almost all of Britain's population lives in England, which is about half the land mass.

This explains why houses are expensive, it doesn't really explain why house prices have risen so much faster in the UK than in other European countries in the last decade, nor why they outstrip rises in income so considerably. Seanyboy's suggestion concerning the lack of new housing is more accurate, I would suggest this quite probably combines with a decrease in the average occupancy of houses as the number of people living singly increases. The problem is compounded by the centering of much of the UK economy in the South East, though this does not adequately cover why housing in other regions is so elevated. (Though it may have an impact on which areas drop like stones if the bubble ever bursts - I suspect London and surrounds will have some protection.)
posted by biffa at 1:54 AM on October 8, 2004

House prices are high because Britain is an extremely densely populated isand. The figures are further skewed by the fact that almost all of Britain's population lives in England, which is about half the land mass.

I don't think you get it. The 'value' of my house has rise, since I bought it about 14 years ago, by 300%. So has everyone else's in the area. Are there 300% more people? No. Did the local council pave the streets with gold? No. It's simple economics of greed, and it is pricing houses way above what people can afford, especially first time buyers.

On preview: what biffa said.
posted by chrid at 2:12 AM on October 8, 2004

This article confuses two separate issues: (a) the concentration of much of the English countryside in the hands of a few aristocratic landowners, and (b) the boom in house prices, which means that first-time buyers in London and elsewhere are being priced out of the housing market. It's not clear to me how these two issues are connected. I know that a butterfly flapping its wings in China causes hurricanes in Florida; but I honestly cannot see how the Duke of Atholl's ownership of grouse moors in Scotland has any effect on house prices in London.

The English aristocracy has always been very good at extracting money from its property, and if (e.g.) the Cavendish family saw an opportunity to profit by building new residential estates in Derbyshire, I am sure they would take it. (Never make the mistake of assuming that the English upper classes are all effete toffs; they are pragmatic, unsentimental, and very interested in making money.) But as Lord Cavendish's land agent points out in this article, the Government's policy is to encourage development of brownfield rather than greenfield sites -- and in any case, the pressure to build more houses is coming from (sub)urban London, not rural Derbyshire.

The article does make some good points. For example: it is surprisingly difficult to find out who owns what in Britain; and it is now widely accepted that the current system of land registry needs to be reformed. And there are very real questions about the current system of agricultural subsidy, a system which is designed to compensate farmers but which also works very much to the advantage of the landed aristocracy. (This is, of course, a politically explosive issue which no government will dare to touch, since it affects not only the future of the countryside but also Britain's future relationship with the European Union.) But understanding of these issues is not helped by indulging in antiquated class-war rhetoric about toffs and public-school accents.

On the 'right to roam' issue, salmacis has it wrong. The right to use public footpaths and designated rights-of-way is already established in law; but the new legislation, for the first time, makes it possible to wander freely across large tracts of open countryside, without having to stick to the paths. See here for a good explanation. The 'right to roam' mattered much more in the 1920s and 1930s when rambling was a mass working-class movement. Now, however, it is chiefly a middle-class pastime, and the Ramblers Association is a middle-class pressure-group, even though it likes to dwell fondly on the glory days of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.
posted by verstegan at 2:35 AM on October 8, 2004

House prices have something to do with Tory policies in the 70s, AFAIK. They did something to the housing market (deregulated it?) as an election promise. This made home owners instantly 'richer', so they voted the Tories in. Alot like the selling off of publicly owned businesses (gas, electric, water, rail) that happened in the 80s.
The old 'vote for us and get rich quick' ballcocks that regularly kcufs up the society for the majority.
The rest of Europe do not have the same crazy housing market boom and bust cycle, house prices rise steadily with inflation. This gives more impetus to housing as a social function rather than as a means to economic benefit.
The whole concept of land ownership is farcical IMHO, but that's another story.
posted by asok at 2:54 AM on October 8, 2004

Thanks for correcting me on the "right to roam" issue.

The reason for the current boom in house prices does not seem to me to be particularly connected to the distribution of land. It's all a matter of supply and demand.

Firstly demand: The population of Britain still rising, partly thanks to immigration. Divorce rates are at an all time high and people are choosing to marry later or not at all, thus there are more people than ever before living alone. Many people are seeing property as a better investment than the stock market and there is a booming market in buy-to-let. Of course, this only increases demand, which increases house prices, which makes buy-to-let seem like an even better investment. At the same time this upwards pressure means more people are having to rent rather than buy their homes.

Supply: Because of the above points, a lot of houses need to be built each year just to keep supply and demand balanced.This is simply not happening. There are (rightly) all kinds of planning regulations, and it's getting increasingly hard to build on green-belt land. Of the houses that are getting built, they are overwhelmingly aimed at the more affluent end of the spectrum, since that's where the greatest profits lie. Most new houses are out of the range of the first time buyer. In the past, the Government helped keep house prices in check by building council homes and charging low rents. Now that has gone, there has been a general upwards shift in the value of homes.

The whole thing is a bubble. It has to collapse sooner or later. For a newly married couple to have to spend 6 times their salary to afford a house is just ridiculous. The answer is to build more low income homes on brownfield sites, and it has to be subsidised by the Government. In the end, it's in all our interests.
posted by salmacis at 3:34 AM on October 8, 2004

The boom in house prices results from a combination of several factors: (a) cheap money, (b) economic prosperity, (c) a sluggish stock market. If you've got a spare £200,000 to invest, do you put it into the stock market? Of course not; you do what Cherie Blair did, you take advantage of low interest-rates and you go into the buy-to-let market. You can call it 'the economics of greed' if you like, chrid; or alternatively you can call it the economics of rational self-interest.

Just to follow up the point I made earlier: I think the whole 'right to roam' thing is very typical of the way things work in this country. It's the politics of nostalgia: win a battle seventy years too late, and celebrate it as a famous victory. No wonder the British Left can't get it together; on so many issues they're still fighting the last war, like the British army in 1914.

On preview: salmacis, I agree with much of what you say, but I am still sceptical of the argument that house prices are high because Britain is a densely-populated island (an argument which, of course. plays into the hands of the anti-immigration lobby; a reason to treat it with caution). In this sense I think the New Statesman article is making a very important point. There is, in fact, a lot of spare land in Britain, but we tend not to notice it, partly because we're conditioned to think of 'the countryside' as virgin land that mustn't be violated by development. And this romantic notion of the countryside is perhaps preventing us from thinking critically about the countryside as an economic resource and how it should be used.
posted by verstegan at 3:56 AM on October 8, 2004

I'm with you on action to create more lower end housing salmacis, acting on the buy-to-let side of things might also be a useful way to deflate the bubble a bit and prevent some of the economic fallout when the market does collapse. I look forward to the day when we are all part of the Greater Milton Keynes metropolis.
posted by biffa at 3:58 AM on October 8, 2004

Christ on a bike, we've gone a bit Daily Mail today. Must be Friday...
posted by salmacis at 4:39 AM on October 8, 2004

The Irish market has been just as nuts lately - house prices have tripled in the last ten years. Irish investors are now buying large quantities of land and property in Britain, the new EU accession countries, hell, just about anywhere, since just about anywhere is cheaper than Ireland.
posted by kersplunk at 5:47 AM on October 8, 2004

Houses are cheap as chips up north, you know. When people talk about high British house prices, what they mean is high southern English house prices.
posted by reklaw at 6:19 AM on October 8, 2004

Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it. Would you really like to see the lovely English countryside taken over by a bunch of developers who replace it with condos and strip malls? Developers have ravaged my state and now the cry is to purchase and protect as much of the remaining greenspace as possible.
posted by caddis at 6:42 AM on October 8, 2004

Building houses in the countryside doesn't really help when the jobs are all in the big cities. Same in the US, lots and lots, and lots of land, but prices in NY, San Francisco etc are sky high because that's where the jobs and the limited housing are. Houses are cheap as chips in the sticks here too, but you don't get city salaries there either. Like verstegan said, it's cheap money and economic prosperity driving the market, and if you can't afford to live in the SE move up north.
posted by zeoslap at 7:29 AM on October 8, 2004

reklaw, in some areas that may be true, but they tend not to be the same areas where the jobs are. May I bring your attention to this:

Today London auctioneers Allsop, who deal with Bradford properties, said Yorkshire and Humberside had been the top performing area in Britain for the second quarter of this year with an increase of 10.6 per cent.

The price of property in the town has been the fastest growing in Yorkshire over the past year with prices having risen by 52 per cent.
posted by asok at 7:48 AM on October 8, 2004

kersplunk - that's yer celtic tiger pricing housing out of reach of the locals. Another benefit of the tax free EU zone mallarky that has done sod all for the country, but plenty for the corporations.
posted by asok at 7:55 AM on October 8, 2004

Houses are cheap as chips up north, you know. When people talk about high British house prices, what they mean is high southern English house prices.

I really wish that were true. Sadly it's bollocks. House prices where I live in Sheffield have tripled in the 7 years since I moved here. There's now not a huge amount of difference between house prices here than where I moved from near Guildford.
posted by chill at 8:53 AM on October 8, 2004

**and the current price of houses where I moved from near Guildford.**
posted by chill at 8:56 AM on October 8, 2004

From the (communist) article:
60 million acres in size, of which 41 million are designated "agricultural" land, 15 million are "waste" (forests, rivers, mountains and so on) and owned mainly by the Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission, and four million are "urban plot", the land on which most of the 60 million people of these islands live.

If land is so scare, and people have no where to live, why don't developers convert some of that 'agricultural' land into housing? Is growing potatoes a good use of that land?

Modern societies need modern economies, and agricluture should be reserved for 3rd world countries where land is cheap and labor is cheaper. Britain - a industrial modern society with a smart, educated workforce - should not be in the business of growing potatoes and herding cattle.
posted by Witold at 11:19 AM on October 8, 2004

Thanks for the info on rights to roam.

There are two very different issues here, and the causal connections don't seem clear to me. That said, they are both important.

About housing:
Could part of the difference between other European countries and Britain be a cultural one? Britains (and other anglophones) tend to expect single family homes (detached or semi-detached), even in towns and cities, which is more land and service expensive (at least for things like transit, water, etc) than blocks of flats. Also, it seems to me (when I was visiting the UK) that houses are getting larger (in response to demand?). Though they aren't as large as North American houses, they are considerably larger than they once were, and perhaps larger than many places on the Continent?

As for green belt development - I can't say that I would be for that. Yes, Britain, especially England, is a very densely populated country, but that is all the more reason to protect what countryside remains. In the choice between having a large house with a back yard, I would much rather live in a low-rise flat with a nice patio, and know that there were still fields and woods nearby for my kids to play in, even if we have to go out there on the weekend.

On land and agriculture:
The issue of subsidies is what makes the very narrow distribution of land significant - should the UK or the EU be subsidizing such large businesses? This problem exists in every nation with subsidies - they are often mistargetted. Is there a demand by others for agricultural land? Or would it be much better if the government chose to instead subsidize the return of unproductive land to fallow and forest?

Witold - I think that, considering that Britain produces some of the world's finest cheeses, and some tasty potatos too, that "the business of growing potatoes and herding cattle" is already in the hands of that smart, educated workforce, and they like doing that (dairying esp is a skilled craft - I wish I could get British cheese more easily in North America - they put ours to such shame).

Yes, there are good reasons, perhaps, for Britain to not try to compete in the production of staple grains. But too many products - notably produce and dairy, as well as niche products, cannot be imported without a huge decrease in quality and possible increase in price (both from the transport). It would be incrediably inefficient, and produce very bad food, for Britain to eschew fruit production, for example. British strawberries are lovely - what would a Californian berry be like, after being shipped across the Atantic? They are bad enough in Toronto. Local produce is always better, and nearly always cheaper; and artisanal production, e.g. producing fine cheeses, is a very good place for Britain to work with its advantages and disadvantages (educated and skilled workforce, but higher cost of labour and land) in producing both for home and for the export market.

I actually to study English agriculture, albeit in the 17th and 18th centuries - and I think where it's gone wrong has been to ignore the wisdom of those farmers in favour of "modern" industrial farming and monocropping. Current high yields are optained by very destructive farming methods (though they do have better conservation that North America). Yet in the 17th and 18th centuries, convertable husbandy (switching between arable and pastoral farming), along with the introduction nitrogen fixing crops like clover (IIRC) and legumes, really increased the output while restoring the soil. I'm especially worried when I find out that farmers in Britain are paid to leave land fallow, but no measures are taken to rebuild it's fertlity naturally (as by grazing animals on it for the fallow years). There is too much emphasis on mono-cropping, which is more "efficient" in the short term, but not as stable in the long.
posted by jb at 1:22 PM on October 8, 2004

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