A Land Reform Manifesto

A new campaign is born

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd February 1995.

The Sutton Estate, just to the west of Newbury, covers some of the most exalted watermeadows in southern England. In 1983, when I was waterkeeper there, the manager told me not to cut too much of the bankside vegetation. The estate was the guardian of the countryside. As such it had a duty to preserve its ancestral character.

In 1994 the meadows were due to be crossed by the four lanes of the Newbury bypass. Confident that I could make common cause, I was about to visit the estate, when the manager published his plans. Claiming that he was powerless to stop the road, he requested that he be allowed to supply the hardcore: he would dig out a further 100 acres of the meadows for gravel. Beside the road, he proposed building 1600 houses, a hotel and an 18-hole golf course. As the new bypass was likely to fill up within a few years, he suggested that a second road should also pass through the estate.

Looking back, it seems that what I was told in 1983 was prompted less by concern for the common heritage of humankind than by the fees the anglers paid to fish a tangled and difficult beat. As soon as a more profitable use of the land emerged, ancestral values were unceremoniously ditched. Although the manager claimed that his plans would answer Newbury’s housing needs in a coordinated fashion, it struck me that the estate’s guardianship of the countryside extended no further than the next financial opportunity.

The Sutton Estate is no worse than other landowners: indeed, in one respect it is significantly better, as it has reseeded watermeadows which, some years ago, were ploughed up. But, like all the lords of the land, its power to treat its property as it wishes is scarcely restrained. It is this that lies at the heart of our environmental crisis.

The roads programme, the destruction of our wild places and archaeological remains, the abominable treatment of farm animals, the persecution of gypsies, travellers and protestors are not the sources of injustice but merely its symptoms. Unless the environment and social justice movements address the control and ownership of land, they will for ever be playing at the margins of political change.

When William the Conqueror arrived in Britain, the land still belonged to its people. There were minor lords for whom landless peasants worked in return for food and protection. There were tens of thousands of freeholders – people farming for themselves and their families on small patches of their own land. But perhaps the majority of Britain was commons: land owned and used by communities.

William divided England among 180 barons who, in turn, handed out concessions to their followers. But the commons were protected: the defeated Saxons, though they owed both farm labour and military service to their new lords, were allowed to farm their community’s open fields and graze their animals on the “manorial wastes”. The king was canny enough to know that if he took the commons from the people, he could never suppress the ensuing revolution.

It was not until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries that large-scale dispossessions began. In selling their land to urban businessmen, he created a new, peculiarly rapacious landed class, which wasted no time in realizing the value of its assets by seizing the commons and evicting the commoners. The Civil War was essentially a battle between these new lords of the land and the older landed order, and the victory of the former accelerated the adoption of their methods by the latter. In the 18th and 19th centuries the institutionalized theft of the enclosures was formalized by hundreds of acts of parliament.

By the time the Parliamentary Enclosures ended, most of the population was living in the towns, many in misery and squalor, and the land was in the hands of a tiny number of its inhabitants. Today one per cent of the people own between 50 and 75 per cent of the land. It is impossible to be precise, as the landlords have successfully resisted a census since 1875. In Scotland, the enclosures – or Clearances – were both more rapid and more complete than in England. Thousands died when they were dispossessed, tens of thousands were forcibly loaded onto ships and sent to the colonies. Today, half of Scotland is owned by 600 people, and the thieves of our common inheritance are the undisputed lords of the land.

In January 1994, Dr Nick Fiddes, a researcher studying the direct action movement at Edinburgh University, was filming hunt saboteurs in the Borders when, he alleges, he was knocked over and beaten up by a senior hunt servant of the Duke of Buccleuch. He kept filming, and his footage includes a boot slamming past the lens and into his face. He took the matter to the police, who referred it to the Procurator Fiscal’s office, Scotland’s equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Crown Council, the highest legal authority in Scotland, instructed the Procurator Fiscal to drop the case. Though nominally independent, he complied. When Dr Fiddes attempted to find out why the highest powers had intervened in a minor assault case, he found himself repeatedly stonewalled.

The Duke of Buccleuch is Britain’s largest landowner. He possesses 288,000 acres in Scotland and Northamptonshire. Like many of the lords of the land he remains stupendously powerful. When John Major sought to appoint the chiefs of his police authority, the Duke was one of the men he chose.

Landowners have never relinquished their grip on government. Mrs Thatcher made a point of promoting them to her Cabinet: in the first years of her government, one-third of her ministers were landlords. Their representation in the Lords needs no elaboration, but it is in the rural district and county councils that their power is most naked: they have both the time and the money to devote to local politics, and can rely upon the countryside’s culture of deference. Landowners also chair some of Britain’s most powerful quangos, including those – such as the Countryside Commission – charged with defending us from their excesses.

Large landowners today are a mixed bunch: people who inherited their property or made their money in cities as well as pension funds and insurance companies. But they work, both on the countryside and on our representatives, as a body. In the last few years the Country Landowners’ Association has campaigned against the application of environmental conditions to farm subsidies, attempts to reduce pesticide and nitrate use, measures to prevent hedgerows being grubbed up, management plans for ancient woodlands, public access to the Land Registry and new laws against badger baiters.

But their greatest victory this decade has undoubtably been the trespass provisions of the Criminal Justice Act. These were first proposed by the Association in 1985, and were partly accommodated in the Public Order Act of 1986. Unappeased, the CLA continued to lobby until, eight years later, it achieved everything it had been pressing for. The new Act is another act of enclosure, a further assertion of exclusive rights by those who claim to own the land.

The landlords’ power to legislate is matched only by their power to destroy. The argument most often advanced by the CLA in favour of the Criminal Justice Act is that travellers damage hedges, fields and features of historical or scientific value. Yet, every year throughout the 1990s, country landowners have overseen the loss of 18,000 kilometres of hedgerow. Since the war, they have destroyed nearly 50 per cent of our ancient woodlands, and, this century, they have ploughed over 70 per cent of our downlands.

Most distressingly, across huge areas they have erased the historical record. The dense peppering of longbarrows, tumuli, dykes and hillforts in what are now the arable lands of southern England has all but disappeared since the war. In response to landowners’ lobbying, the government continues to grant special permission – the Class Consents – to plough out even scheduled
ancient monuments. Features that persisted for thousands of years, that place us in our land, are destroyed in a matter of moments for the sake of crops that nobody wants.

Yet throughout this, the most destructive period Britain has ever known, the landlords have continued to portray themselves as the guardians of the countryside. And we, confused and outwitted, have believed them. One rambler, infuriated by the destruction of a flowering meadow, told me, “But it’s not the landowners, it’s the farmers.” Like many people in Britain, she associated the lords of the land with stately parks. These are, of course, often beautifully maintained and teeming with wildlife; but they tend to be 500 acres of pleasant greenery amidst 10,000 laid waste by the same owner’s plough. Indeed the money that sustains the park comes, as often as not, from the destruction of its surroundings.

The power of the proprietors extends to our exclusion from the land. Places which, before enclosure, belonged to the entire community, are closed today to all but the owner and his family. Four per cent of England and Wales is still registered as commons, but there is a right to roam over only one fifth of this fragmentary inheritance. In the rest of the countryside, where, from time immemorial until the 18th century, everyone had a right to wander, to play, to enjoy God’s gifts of wildness and weather, we are confined to a shrinking network of public paths, on which we are trespassing the moment we stand still or sit down.

If we wander off those paths we are conscious of sinning. When caught, we accept the owner’s bogus arguments about damage to hedges or frightening game, apologize and leave. Yet this land is ours. The man who holds the deeds to a stretch of countryside has no greater moral right to that land than the man who wishes to visit it.

Our exclusion has several disastrous consequences. Without a sense of belonging to the land, and of the land belonging to us, we are the citizens of nowhere, and our alienation from our surroundings rebounds in the apprehension that we no longer belong to ourselves. Without a stake in the land we feel, moreover, that we have no right to determine what happens there. Perhaps worst of all, the model of enclosure which has come to dominate the countryside now prevails in the towns. City farms are turned into private car parks, parks into office blocks, and streets into shopping malls from which undesirables are excluded. Our government is a government of enclosers, whose attitudes emerge from four centuries of ruthless privatization.

The direct action movement is the most potent popular force of the 1990s, yet it has one fundamental and potentially fatal weakness. So far it has been largely responsive. The government proposes a road or a bill and the movement opposes it: the Department of Transport and the Home Office have set the direct action agenda.

Political change does not take place until the opponents of government fight for what they’re for, rather than simply fighting what they’re against. Nothing of substance will alter until we tackle the continued enclosure of our land.

Britain and some of its ex-colonies are the only nations on earth where the concept of trespass is understood. We must overturn this notion and assert a right of access to all uncultivated land, of the sort enshrined in law in Sweden and taken for granted elsewhere in Europe. We must reassert our rights to common spaces in towns, and where necessary wrest them back from the hands of developers. We must restrain the destructive power of the lords of the land with planning laws, so that farmers have to apply to the community before ploughing a virgin meadow or building a battery chicken house.

In Brazil, the dispossessed know how to assert such rights. In some places 10,000 people at a time have invaded a stretch of land, and the government, unable to restrain them, has given them what they want. In September, our government will publish a Rural White Paper, which will determine the future development of the countryside. The idea was announced at the Conservative Party Conference: not in the main hall but at the fringe meeting of the Country Landowner’s Association. The claws were in before the prey was out of its hole. If this land is to become a place for all of its people, it is up to us to prise that grip apart.

The first major occupation will take place on Sunday April 23rd. If you want to take part please send a stamped addressed envelope or your email address to: Land Reform, Box E, 111 Magdalen Road, Oxford OX4 1RQ. E-mail: eartharc@gn.apc.org

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