Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean

25,000 people own half of the land in England. That’s far less than one percent of the country, who are in possession of millions of acres of farmland, upland, peatland, forest (what little of it we have), parks, and every other type of land you can think of, from London mansions to our shorelines.

Despite this relatively small number of landowners, the question of who owns England is almost impossible to answer, due to the secrecy of ownership and the difficulty and cost of using the Land Registry. I say almost, for this is exactly what Guy Shrubsole, author of the book ‘Who Owns England’, has been trying to do for several years.

I read Guy’s book when it was first published in 2019, and was astounded by what I learnt – not just by the scale of inequality in land ownership in England, but the extent to which the picture has remained scarily similar since William the Conqueror portioned off these newly-won isles to his friends nearly a thousand years ago.

So when Guy agreed to talk to me for this column, first off, I was delighted that it gave me a chance to revisit the book, and to be astounded once more by some of the details regarding land ownership in England which are, at times, so outlandish, that you have to read the sentence again just to make sure you’ve got it right.

The book is an amalgam of all my interests in one – history, politics, the environment, inequality – and there is something unique about land ownership with regard to all of these: the history of land ownership in England really cannot be disentangled from English, and British, politics. Moreover, what we do with our land, or what other people do with ‘our’ land, has had, and will have, crucial consequences for the climate and biodiversity crises. 

Access to land in this country is deeply unequal, as Guy tells me in our video call: “The public only has access to 8% of the land in England.” Indeed, the Countryside Rights of Way (CRoW) Act allows the public a right to roam in only some areas of the English countryside, such as mountains and moors. However, the Act does not extend right to roam to woodlands and most downland, thus, rather than being allowed access to the countryside, many people in England have to travel far to access places to walk or enjoy the outdoors where doing so does not constitute trespass.

The message from ‘Who Owns England?’ is clear: if you want to have access to land in this country, make sure you’ve got lots of money, or marry someone who does; “At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, some 200 Norman barons owned half of England. Thanks to the miracle of trickle-down economics, that elite expanded over time – so that a mere eight centuries later, half of England lay in the hands of 4,000 aristocrats and members of the gentry.” After a period of relative opening up of land ownership in the 20th Century, from the 1970s onwards, ‘old money’ was joined “by a newly minted plutocracy who today are keeping up the landowning traditions of a territorial elite.”

The natural follow-up question is why? Why is England owned by such a small elite? Guy uses the word ‘taboo’ to describe our national awkwardness to talk about money and land, and he says, this is one reason why land ownership remains so secretive and sealed-off. People don’t know who owns land, and people are reluctant to talk about land ownership, which makes for a perfect combination if you’re someone like the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, one of the largest private landowners in the UK, with over 270,000 acres, and who received £1.6m in farm subsidies in 2016 alone. Furthermore, the Land Registry is incomplete and “remains frustratingly opaque” says Guy; it costs £3 each time you want to find out who owns a certain parcel of land, and thus, if you wanted to find out who owns the 83% of English and Welsh land covered in the Registry, it would set you back £72 million.

Yet even if land ownership has been unequal in this country for the last millennia, the picture did look remarkably different back in 1600, when around 27-30% of England was common land, meaning villagers could grow crops and rear livestock on land owned in common by the community, for all to use and to benefit from.

Rather than a “tragedy of the commons”, what we have witnessed, Guy tells me, is a “privatisation of the commons” which certainly has been a tragedy, but which, especially in England, we seem to have forgotten about. The enclosure of vast swathes of England in the 17th and 18th centuries especially, enforced by parliamentary legislation (i.e., legislated for by rich landowners, elected by their fellow landowners), does not evoke memories of loss and catastrophe as the Highland Clearances do in Scotland.

Perhaps somewhere in this we can attempt to explain why in Scotland the right to roam is so extensive when compared to England, and why north of the border, communities have greater powers to form land trusts and buy land back into community ownership, such as the Langholm Community Buyout has recently done (buying over 5,000 acres from the aforementioned Buccleuch Estates).

A further question is why is such unequal land ownership, and lack of access to land, a problem? If we say we want to extend the public’s right to roam in England, to bring more land into community ownership, then what is the end goal of this?

“Connection,” is the key word Guy uses in his response. People in England no longer have a “land literacy,” – we don’t know that much about where we live. And if we don’t know much about where we live, then we’re less likely to know when it’s being threatened, and less likely to care when it’s gone. “And,” as President Johnson said, “once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

Spirit and sustenance are equally matched by more fundamental needs of human survival, security and safety however. The more we reconnect with our land, the greater our understanding of our dependence on it, and the greater our will to fight for, and protect it.

In his book and in our call, Guy speaks about the leader of the Diggers, Gerrard Winstanley, who encamped upon and dug into St George’s Hill in London so “’that it shall become a common treasury for all.’” And isn’t, ultimately, what the question of land, land ownership, access to land, about? We all survive on the land, even if our lives in the modern day seem so totally removed from it.

Thus, the land question goes to the heart of tackling the greatest challenges we face: protection of peatland, for instance, (which stores more carbon than do forests in the UK), is vital if we are to meet our carbon emissions targets. Rewilding our land, which has been so gravely affected by intensive large-scale agriculture, will allow nature to flourish again, whilst opening up access to land will enable people of all ages to “walk with beauty or wonder at nature” with significant health and well-being benefits too.

What, then, is to be done?

I gave Guy the hypothetical opportunity of having dinner at the high table in Balliol Hall with one of our well-known alumni, Boris Johnson. If he were to recommend three pieces of legislation for the Prime Minister to introduce to Parliament tomorrow, what would they be?

  1. To fully open up the Land Registry, whose secrecy and limited access means we still have an incomplete picture of who owns England.
  2. A vastly expanded Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act, to cover rivers and woodlands, much of which we in England do not have access to, unlike in Scotland.
  3. Finally, legislation to rewild our national parks, which, as Guy writes in an article for Rewilding Britain, are “ecological shadows of what they could, and arguably should, be.”

And finally, I also allowed Guy to decide on three action points for this week’s column:

  1. Firstly, speak with your local council about the land they own, or land ownership in general within their borders. Here in Oxford, a local group called Who Owns Oxford? are working on maps which display land ownership in and around the city. Sophie Yeo at the Inkcap Journal last week published a fantastic article about local councils and rewilding if you want to read more!
  2. Sign up to the Right to Roam campaign, which Guy has set up, alongside the author of ‘The Book of Trespass’, Nick Hayes. So much of the land – especially rivers and woodland – in England is off-limits, and time is well overdue for this to change. As the Right to Roam website asks, “Why shouldn’t we also be allowed to camp, kayak, swim, and climb amongst the beauty of the natural world?”
  3. Finally, support the calls and campaigns for rewilding being spearheaded by Rewilding Britain – where Guy works as Policy and Campaigns Coordinator. Rewilding is vital to restoring our nature-depleted British Isles, to tackling the climate and biodiversity crises.

Pura vida,

Max.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.