The Land Where We Belong

Land use in Britain will always work against us, until we demand control over the decisions which govern it

By George Monbiot. Published in Red Pepper December 1995.

Holts Field is a cluster of wooden houses on the outskirts of Swansea. Though they were built before the Second World War and have never been moved, though they are the homes of a close knit community of 54 people, the residents have no legal means of preventing their demolition. As they have no foundations they are viewed by the law as mobile homes, so the land beneath them can be used as its owner sees fit. In 1989 the site was bought by a property developer. Though he failed to get planning permission to build executive mansions there, he has decided to destroy the wooden houses anyway.

Holts Field is an extreme example, but the principles at work here intrude, in one way or another, into all of our lives. The land is our most fundamental resource, whose control determines the structure and tone of our society, the distribution of its wealth and the quality of our environment. Only those with rights to it benefit from its use. The concentration of rights in the hands of just a few people – large landowners and developers – means that the land works for them and not for us. Development takes place for the benefit of developers; housing land is monopolized by those who need it least; farmland responds to the destructive whims of its owners, rather than our demands for access, conservation and animal welfare.

After centuries of enclosure, clearances and speculation, some parts of Britain have the highest concentrations of landownership in the world. In the nation as a whole between 50 and 75 per cent of the land is in the hands of one per cent of the population. In Scotland 600 people own half the country. This concentration of ownership is accompanied by a concentration of power. Landowners’ continued grip over much of the political process means that people who live at the other end of the country, or even on the other side of the world, can exercise more control than we do over the land we live on and the land that surrounds us.

The developers’ power over the development process results in some of Britain’s most striking democratic deficits. Developers have a right of appeal if a planning decision goes against them; local people do not. Developers can re-submit almost identical applications as many times as they like, until they wear down the resistance of local communities or exhaust their resources, as legal fees swallow up people’s fighting funds. Most astonishingly, developers still openly use what they call “off-site planning gain” – bribery to the rest of us – to get what they want. Local authorities often ask a developer to modify his proposal to get planning permission, by including some component deemed to be useful to the rest of the community, such as a few low-cost homes included in an executive estate, or the upgrading of a road leading to a superstore. Such incentives, confined to the site itself, are allowed to influence a council’s decisions. But decisions affected by a developer’s promise to build a swimming pool on the other side of town or to give the council a straight cash payment are unlawful. Though more and more money is illegally handed over to cash-starved councils, no one has ever been prosecuted.

The results of these distortions litter our urban and rural landscapes. Land close to the city centres, which is perfectly suited for the sort of low cost housing that regenerates communities and brings cities back to life, is instead used to build office blocks nobody wants. Superstores – in or out of town – are unveiled by council leaders with solemn declarations about the jobs they will generate, then proceed to wipe out the nearby shops and street markets, with a net loss of employment. Playing fields, city farms, allotments, cemeteries and parks are turned into private car parks or condominiums for visiting businessmen; despite the protests of the communities they served.

The extent to which planning policy is governed by the needs of developers rather than the needs of ordinary people is visible in every city in Britain. “Planning” is an imprecise description of the process involved. The one hundred-acre ex-industrial site half a mile from where I live, for example, has just been swallowed up by a superstore, its car park and a series of office blocks, even though a neighbouring office complex has been unoccupied for years. Having allocated most of the space, the council remembered that it had some duty towards the public, so it built a phallic monument. Only when all the space was designated for such necessities did the county discover that its new structure plan obliges it to build 12,000 homes. Since the city has frittered away the perfect location, it will now have to build them in the countryside.

At no stage of this process were we, the inhabitants of the city, asked what we wanted the site to be used for. We were merely asked to respond, in an unequal contest, to the proposals of the developers. Our choice, in other words, was a negative one, not a positive one. If polled, it is unlikely that we would have requested more office blocks or, for that matter, a phallic monument.

The most famous of the unaccountable land use decisions of the last few years involve road construction of the kind that has eviscerated Twyford Down and Wanstead. These decisions could not have prevailed without a public consultation process that excludes the public and consults only those with a vested interest. Public inquiries for road schemes are, in effect, no more than a dialogue between the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency, a small part of which we are allowed to witness but not, in any meaningful way, to influence. Road building in Britain reflects not only a flawed transport policy but also a flawed and unaccountable land use policy.

The quality of our surroundings is, of course, one of the most important determinants of the quality of our lives. All of us have an active interest in them, yet this interest is not represented by significant rights. While in the cities environmental quality swings with the whims of co-opted local authorities, in the countryside landscape change can be even more dramatic. You can go to bed surrounded by watermeadows that have never been tilled and wake up, without warning, to find them ploughed for rape, with the loss of the archaeology, wildlife, accessibility and complexity that made your life a pleasant one.

The problem is that only a few tiny pockets of rural land are in any way protected from the vicissitudes of agriculture. A farmer has to negotiate with English Nature or English Heritage if his activities are likely to affect a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Having done so, if he is canny, he can then go ahead and wipe them out anyway. But the remainder of our countryside is unprotected even by such nugatory measures, let alone any form of genuine public consultation. There are no legal means of restraining farmers from destroying most features of local importance, however ancient or well-established they may be. There are no means of restricting new ploughing to land that has already been ploughed.

The power of rural landowners is such that they have managed to exempt even farm buildings from public scrutiny. The General Development Order grants blanket planning permission for any agricultural building of less than 465 square metres and 12 metres high, provided it is a certain distance from human habitation. If a landowner builds at two year intervals, he can cover the whole farm with concrete without informing anyone. He can house as many battery chickens, pigs or mink as he likes without consulting the council on any issue but waste disposal.

If, by contrast, impoverished human beings wish to house themselves in the open countryside, they are faced with insuperable planning barriers. The obstacles to human housing in land zoned for agriculture make sense when they exclude executive estates, which would disfigure attractive landscapes while housing those who could afford to buy elsewhere. But they make no sense when applied to “low impact developments” like Tinkers’ Bubble in Somerset, where ten underhoused people have built benders and wooden huts, entirely hidden in the woods.

Though Tinkers’ Bubble and other such developments have improved the environment with organic conversions and sustainable woodland management, planning permission is nearly always refused. District councils, many of which are dominated by large landowners and those who defer to them, are more concerned about maintaining the social tone of the countryside – excluding the poor, the hairy and the dispossessed in other words – than protecting the environment. It’s an ethic that extends to people’s recreational use of the land as well. With a right to roam on only a few small pockets of Britain, we, the great unwashed, are quite literally pushed to the margins of society. A classless society is unattainable while most of the nation is closed to all but the priveleged.

The power of the rural landed interest goes beyond local government and the House of Lords. The Country Landowners’ Association, which occupies a cavernous building in Belgrave Square, despatches a steady stream of lobbyists to Westminster. Its supplications fall on fertile ground, as many Conservative MPs, whether or not they own rural estates, are Association members.

Even the body charged with restraining the excesses of landowners has been successfully captured. From 1980 until 1991 the Countryside Commission was chaired by Sir Derek Barber, who owned a farm in Gloucestershire. Now, as Lord Barber, he is chairman of Booker Countryside, which manages other people’s land for them. In a recent article in Country Life magazine he deplored regulations restraining nitrate and pesticide use, called for an increase in farm size and described the EC’s threat to embargo bovine somatotrophin (the hormone which stimulates extra milk production when injected into cows) as “a depressing example of obstructing technical progress”. With friends like this it is hardly surprising that much of our arable land is a hazard to human health, while the livestock sector is beginning to look like the Island of Dr Moreau.

If Britain is to become a place for all of its people, rather than just a fortunate few, the owners and manipulators of land in both cities and the countryside must be brought to account. In the short term, we need sweeping reforms of the planning and public inquiry processes. The public’s rights of appeal must be as great, or greater than that of developers. We should be given formal opportunities, as non-developers, to propose uses for local development sites. We need prosecutions of councillors accepting off-site planning gain and a wholly new public consultation process for road schemes.

In the countryside, we can no longer leave the protection of wildlife and landscape features to corrupt and underfunded bureaucracies. Public footpaths are reasonably well-protected because the public monitors them. Landscape features could be conserved by the same means: a definitive map of locally important sites checked and maintained by their visitors. This, as well as the demands of social justice, necessitates a right to roam. The General Development Order must be suspended, while planning presumptions in favour of low impact development are introduced to enable people other than just counts and commuters to establish a foothold in the countryside.

These rights will help bring some aspects of land-use back into the public domain, but they will do little to address the concentration of landownership, whose obscene proportions and accompanying power underly all of these problems. This, the central question, is by far the most difficult one.

Demand for the division of land into smallholdings clearly doesn’t extend beyond a few thousand people. The understandable if lamentable lack of interest with which the rest of us view the exchange of bland convenience for chasing pigs around a muddy field means that such a redistribution, even if it worked economically, would immediately be followed by a new concentration.

Nor is nationalisation a realistic or attractive proposition. Far from addressing the concentration of ownership, this would, of course, complete it. The experience of nations such as Brazil and Malaysia which have a large nationalized land-base is an unhappy one. The rights and wishes of local people are pushed aside and resources such as forests or mineral rights are ceded, without safeguards, to ministers and their powerful friends. In Britain the Crown Estate and Ministry of Defence properties, our nearest equivalents to large-scale public ownership, are hardly models of accountability and sensitivity. Nationalization, moreover, leads to centralized decision-making. This has no place in land management, which must respond locally to peculiar social and ecological conditions.

Yet while there is little appetite in Britain either for individual smallholdings or for nationalization, there does seem to be a real desire among many communities to own or manage their surroundings collectively. For example, just as the cultivation of allotments – perceived by many people to be a solitary and silent or, worse still, competitive pursuit – wanes, there has been a burgeoning of interest in city farms. Not only do they provide earthy relief from the sterility of their surroundings, but they also encourage people from all over the neighbourhood to muck in together. They are engaging rather than alienating because anyone who chooses is afforded a meaningful role in community ownership and decision making.

A danger in applying this principle on a wider scale is that community power structures in an unequal society have the potential to become as oppressive and unaccountable as external power. Like all institutions, they must be constantly questioned and moderated. In a robust community, like that of the Turkana of Kenya or the Dani of Irian Jaya, this work is done by community members. But our communities, thanks to many centuries of cultural and political enclosure, are not robust. Paradoxically, community ownership in Britain is likely to need external arbitration if it is to be self-sustaining. An example of how this might happen is the Coin Street development at Waterloo, which was jointly controlled by local people and the Greater London Council.

All this presupposes, of course, that we have the capacity to reclaim at least a share of our birthright from the hands of developers and large landowners. The experience of countries which have attempted this by means of simple expropriation has not, on the whole, been an encouraging one. Land reform initiatives in Latin America and the Philippines, for example, have been swiftly followed by a vicious backlash, and the return of the redistributed land to its former proprietors.

The successful redistributions in Japan and Korea, by contrast, took place only after devastating wars, which left the landed class too weak to defend its interests. In South Africa, whose land reform programme appears to be progressing fairly well, the state has two advantages. The apartheid government had annexed or cleared a great deal of land in both cities and the countryside, which, still in government hands, can be readily redistributed. Many large South African farmers are close to bankruptcy, so their land can be purchased cheaply. In Britain – with the exception of MoD land, which could readily be turned into commons – we have no such luck.

One solution is land value or development taxation. Not only does this lead to an immediate return of revenues to the community, but it is also likely to bring land prices in cities down to accessible levels, affording both communities and councils the means of reclaiming some control over their surroundings. Such taxation, however, can only ever be part of a solution. The pursuit of land rights in Britain will be complex and troublesome. But if we neglect it, we can scarcely claim to be the custodians of our own existence.