The Story of the Land

We need land reform in England just as much as in Scotland

By George Monbiot. Published in Reforesting Scotland, some time in 1997

Crossing the border is always an inspiration for an English land campaigner – the ideas we have been struggling to implant in the minds of a tiny fraction of our population already number among the central assumptions of millions of Scots. Unlike the Scots, our collective memory has faded. Our clearances began in earnest 400 years ago and peaked at the beginning of the last century. Our commoners were even more submissive than the dispossessed Highlanders; and, unlike yours, our enfeebling deference has lasted.

The English continue to wrap themselves in the rosy mantle of the romanticism of landed wealth. The artists whose work features among the emblems of Englishness – Waugh, Housman, H.E.Bates, Laurie Lee, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams – tell us that all is or was well with the land and its management. The National Trust announced that it would seek to reflect the lives of the less priveleged rather than just the owners of its stately homes; in practice this means cooks and scullery maids, instead of the thousands cleared from the land, driven to vagrancy and destitution with the formation of every celebrated estate. Like the Scots, we will have to reclaim our past before we can reclaim our future

But the need for land reform in England is more pressing than ever before. As planning regulations – among the last derogations of the absolute rights of ownership – are relaxed, ordinary people have fewer and fewer means of influencing the course of development and the quality of their surroundings. And the means by which development was restrained have been effectively captured by developers. Using the right of appeal against local authority decisions to which they – but not third parties – are entitled, developers are able to blackmail councils into granting them planning permission. Using what they delight in calling “offsite planning gain”, they can offer undisguised financial inducements to local authorities in return for their consent.

We get, as a result, not the developments we desperately need – affordable housing and free recreational facilities, for example – but those we patently don’t, which reduce, rather than enhance, our quality of life. Urban land is used to build superstores, office blocks, extremely expensive housing and millenium domes. The poor are pushed to the peripheries of the cities, far from work and services, or imprisoned in homes so weary and inadequate that 30,000 die each winter of under-insulation.

In the countryside, the landowners’ priveleges are even more inordinate. Neither agriculture nor forestry are classified as development, so they are subject to no form of public accountability or control. We can, as a result, do nothing but watch as our most precious wild places are laid waste and rural employment falls to the lowest level of any agricultural nation on earth – just half that of the city state of Hong Kong.

The Land is Ours is a movement, rather than an organization. Anyone endorsing our statement of principle (“The Land is Ours campaigns peacefully for access to the land, its resources and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone”) can join or set up a Land is Ours group of their own. By coming together to help each other with local actions or national campaigns, we can mobilize thousands of people and push issues onto the political agenda that never featured there before, as we found during our occupation of derelict land in London last year, and farmland in 1995.

Much of our inspiration has been drawn from contact with the Brazilian landless movement and the South African land reform campaign. It’s time to forge closer links with our nearest neighbours. We have a great deal to learn from you, and possibly a few things to pass on. Might it not be time for a major, proactive occupation north of the border? Together we can shake our oppressors off. The land is ours: it is the duty of all good citizens to seize it back.