THIS LAND IS OUR LAND – how can land be treated as personal property?

Sign reading "Private - No public right of way" on fence with barbed wire with open countryside behind it
Photo by Andrew Martin at pixabay.com

On the third day, God, according to the Bible, created the land, the oceans and all the plants. People didn’t arrive until Day Six. Scientifically speaking, we know that the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, but the earliest human ancestors didn’t emerge until about six million years ago. Britain only became an island 125,000 years ago, while Sussex’s known history covers less than 3000 years. The Normans invaded just over one thousand years ago. Then began the problem – land ownership.

Property law relating to ownership of land in England and Wales can be traced back to Roman times, but modern-day English land law has its roots in the feudal system established by William the Conqueror in 1066. Over the centuries, and particularly in the last hundred years or so, there’s been a decrease in wealthy land-owning aristocrats, an increase in “self-made” rich businesspeople, and therefore a larger number of owners participating in the real estate market. However, a 2019 article revealed that, shockingly, around half of England is owned by just 1% of landowners, and that they are almost entirely a mixture of corporations, oligarchs and aristocrats.

But should anyone actually be entitled to claim ownership of land?

Most people pay for the right to occupy and manage land for some personal or commercial purpose. Whether this transaction constitutes purchase or rental, which offer different forms of entitlement, and whatever we do on it – build, live, farm – we are surely, given our finite lifespans, just its temporary custodians. Others had use of it before us; and yet others will do so again after we move on. People also acquire land without this value-linked transaction, for instance via inheritance. We are used to this picture but some “owners” may assume rights via ways such as inheritance or tenure as possession, which may to others seem unreasonable.

A view of East Sussex countryside at sunset, land owned by Eton College, which it now wants to develop for profit
Threatened land in East Sussex (owners Eton College have announced plans to develop it for profit – photo c/o: donturbanisethedowns.com

Profiting from the custody of land we pay for does seem justifiable, as a reason for – and a return on – our investment while we have tenure. Land-based industries like agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and the letting of land or buildings are sustainable ways of adding value for investor and community alike. But even assuming that we have temporary rights over the land and buildings on it, what about what lies beneath? Some areas, by accident of geology, contain underground resources, which people value due to want or need. Cornwall had its tin, Yorkshire its coal, Sussex its iron, all of which at one time enriched the land “owners” who permitted – and profited from – the mining that took place. But to whom do such assets really belong? These are not sustainable, replaceable resources. They are a part of Planet Earth, not superficial. How can one person be “given” the right to remove part of the planet for personal gain? Extraction is, by definition, not a part of custody. Irreplaceable and unsustainable assets surely, if they must be exploited at all, belong to the entire nation?

It can’t be assumed that you own the minerals under your land; minerals and the right to mine them can be sold in their own right, or more commonly, they can be reserved by a vendor when selling his land to a third party”

from an article by Adele Holliday, Crombie Wilkinson Solicitors, 2017

The problem is that as in so many fields, force majeure can too easily overcome all rationality or fairness. Monarchs had armies with which to occupy land previously not theirs. They also, on occasion, had illegitimate children, supporters and sycophants wanting a nice place to live, preferably with some hunting and shooting attached. But when land is gifted, ethically or not, how right can it be for future generations, responsible or cavalier, decent or greedy, to inherit it? Those who inherit estates might be immune to the economic and social pressures facing most citizens, inevitably leading to feelings of entitlement. The outcome of inherited property is a class structure, where some assume rights and privileges that others cannot: divisive, inequitable and still prevalent. 

So who owns Sussex?  Large organisations such as the Forestry Commission, the Church of England, the South Downs National Park and the National Trust own a great deal of it, and generally have some element of public interest and even some accountability to the community. But local landowning families such as the Gages, Howards,  Cowdrays, Gordon-Lennoxes and Barttelots have no such legal duty (so what happens may depend entirely on whether the few individuals inheriting large estates feel a moral one), even though their tenures may endure for generations. Meanwhile, longtime Sussex landowners such as Eton College now seem primed to take advantage of the current government’s apparent desire to make it even easier for property developers to build over our precious green spaces for profit, and against the wishes of local communities.

East Chiltington villagers protesting the proposed development of nearby unspoiled countryside that is owned by Eton College
East Chiltington villagers with their protest signs combatting Eton College’s plans to build thousands of new houses on nearby unspoiled countryside. Photo by Charlotte Boulton

How equitable is this? What alternative do we have? If any facet of the economy should be nationalised it is surely the land, the literal bedrock of the nation. Nationalised land need not cease to be occupied or managed by those who already do so; they should merely repay the nation proportionately for the privilege. A land use tax or ground rent, varying according to area and usage by the occupant, and approved by the community, would more fairly reflect – and redistribute – the derived profits for the nation, rather than just the occupant. Should the use change, so would the rent or tax. Such a system could even be used to replace the grossly unfair and out-of-date Council Tax on homes, but with the added benefit of applicability to all land. Even mineral extraction could become more acceptable in such a model, with the national exchequer gaining instead of the accidental “owner”. Perhaps paying for usage might encourage more considered management, less “entitlement”, a greater appreciation of the true value of “ownership”; and might even bear down on property inflation.

Human history is but a pinprick in the story of Earth, yet our behaviour has caused the climate change crisis which now jeopardises our entire planet’s future. For any one person to claim outright possession or sole rights over parts of the planet that all living things share is outrageous. It is time that the ground on which we stand was owned by and to the benefit of all, who can then collectively share not only its rich provisions, but also the responsibility for its care – now and in the future.

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