The great property swindle

By Kevin Cahill.

The myth spun about Britain is that land is scarce. It is not – landowners are paid to keep it off the market. As a result, we have the smallest, most expensive houses in Europe

Modern British history, excluding world wars and the loss of empire, is a record of two countervailing changes, one partly understood, one not understood at all. The partly understood change is the urbanisation of society to the point where 90 per cent of us in the United Kingdom live in urban areas. Hidden inside that trans­formation is the shift from a society in which, less than a century and a half ago, all land was owned by 4.5 per cent of the population and the rest owned nothing at all. Now, 70 per cent of the population has a stake in land, and collectively owns most of the 5 per cent of the UK that is urban. But this is a mere three million out of 60 million acres.

Through this transformation, the heirs to the disenfranchised of the Victorian era have inverted the relationship between the landed and the landless. This has happened even while huge changes have occurred in the 42 million acres of rural countryside. These account for 70 per cent of the home islands and are the agricultural plot. From being virtually the sole payers of such tax as was levied in 1873 (at fourpence in the 240p pound), the owners of Britain’s agricultural plot are now the beneficiaries of an annual subsidy that may run as high as £23,000 each, totalling between £3.5bn and £5bn a year. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, pay about £35bn in land-related taxes. Rural landowners receive a handout of roughly £83 per acre, while urban dwellers pay about £18,000 for each acre they hold, an average of £1,800 per dwelling, the average dwelling standing on one-tenth of an acre.

Britain urgently needs land reform, but there is a problem. The “tenants” of between 30 and 50 per cent of the Home Island land mass are unknown. I use the word tenant deliberately. Here’s why. In a written response to a question by Andrew George MP in February 2009, Bridget Prentice, a parliamentary undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice, replied, “The Crown is the ultimate owner of all land in England and Wales (including the Isles of Scilly): all other owners hold an estate in land. Although there is some land that the Crown has never granted away, most land is held of the Crown as freehold or leasehold.”

Prentice omitted to add that, as the preamble to the Land Registration Act 2002 put it, “the concepts of leasehold and freehold derive from medieval forms of tenure and are not ownership”. What this means is that, in relation to land in the UK, we are all tenants on the basis of the feudal superiority of the Crown, a superiority created in 1066 and founded on legal norms that were created to uphold that same feudal superiority.

This expensive medieval legal miasma in relation to land might not matter, if the confusion did not directly impinge on the size of our homes and even more directly on the price of land, which can be as much as 80 per cent of the cost of a new home. Both the size and the cost of houses are predicated on the idea that land is scarce in the UK, but this is a myth propagated by those with an interest in selling plentiful land expensively.

The home islands together with Northern Ireland are 60 million acres in extent. It is estimated that there are 62 million people living on those acres, giving every man, woman and child a little under an acre apiece. An acre is a little over half the size of a standard Football Association pitch, which is why that measurement is used here. Almost everyone in the country knows what a football pitch looks like. Very few people know how to visualise a hectare.

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