Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Who owns Britain?

If you'd been around in 1873 you could have answered that question with some confidence. The newly-published Return of Owners of Land, recorded the ownership of at least 98% of the land in the four countries of the then United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). According to Kevin Cahill, writing in the New Statesman, the current Land Registry for England and Wales is 'at least 35 per cent short of that achievement after 86 years of trying, and in the age of computers.'  30-50% of the UK as a whole is owned by persons unknown, Cahill estimates.

This isn't the accidental result of bureaucratic muddle and incompetence, though. The Land Registry gives an accurate record of the freehold* titles to the 5% of the UK landmass used for domestic dwellings. As for the overwhelming majority of (agricultural) land, Cahill explains:

The failure to record the ownership of land in the UK arises not from failures by the staff running the registries, but from the way they were constructed by lawyers on behalf of landowners. The land registries were designed to conceal ownership, not reveal it.

When somebody's that keen to keep something quiet, it's probably something worth knowing. Kevin Cahill has his eye on the land bank held by these, sometimes unknown, landowners and thinks that, if some of it could be released for building, we'd avoid a situation where property prices are artificially inflated and housing bubbles, with all their problems, form.

Even if you take the contrary view, that holding back millions of acres of land that would otherwise be built on is a good thing because it stops our green and pleasant land turning into one big suburb, there's no reason to keep this sort of information out of the public domain.

One graphic in Cahill's article in particular is worth a look. 10% of the UK's land is used by domestic dwellings and businesses, who pay out £53 billion in land taxes between them. The 70% of the UK's land that is used for agriculture belongs to 0.28% of the population. These landowners don't pay any land tax, but receive £3.5-£5 billion in subsidies - on top of any rents they receive from the land. All of which seems a tad unfair to me.

The justification for this subsidy - to support agriculture and food security - seems a bit flaky. New Zealand farmers can still make a profit from shipping us their un-subsidised lamb from the most distant location on the planet. Even if we were to accept that agriculture still needs to be subsidised by the taxpayer, why should any of the subsidy go in to the pockets of landed rent-takers, rather than to the (mostly tenant) farmers who actually do the work? In times of desperate austerity for most people, many might be understandably angry to hear that the taxman gives a tiny minority of wealthy landowners a free ride and a nice little subsidy on top. Or that some of the wealthiest people in the country can keep their name off a Land Registry that identifies the owner of even the most modest starter home.

The New Statesman gets quite a bit of stick, some of it  justified, but it justifies its existence with thought-provoking articles like this. Read the whole thing here:

*I've talked about people "owning" land for the sake of convenience. It's actually a bit more complicated than that, thanks to those Normans and their feudal ways. Even freeholders are legally just tenants of the Crown, as Cahill points out, using a couple of pertinent quotations:

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.

(Bridget Prentice, a parliamentary undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice)

… the concepts of leasehold and freehold derive from medieval forms of tenure and are not ownership

(Preamble to the Land Registration Act 2002)