A land-owning democracy?

UPDATE 22/08/13: I just came across this article in the New Statesman setting out the inequity of “owning” a flat in London, specifically in this case the issue of leasehold, renting by any other name…


I have recently become aware of Kevin Cahill’s book Who Owns Britain (Canongate: 2001) and having found a reference copy in my local library have begun to read this somewhat seminal under published and distinctly subversive text.

OK, it’s not the Communist Manifesto but the ideas that are discussed in it are quite extraordinary when you place them in the context of our class system. Cahill discusses the ways in which the ownership of land is by-and-large obscured by the lack of functioning land registry and how the vast majority of us live on and own only 4.4million acres of Britain’s land mass (of a total of nearer 60million, approximately acre for every person in the UK) the rest exists under the ownership of one group or another (the Crown, National Trust, etc.) with a considerable proportion of this belonging, in obscure circumstances, to the landed gentry, aristocracy and baronets (who apparently aren’t part of the aristocracy, you learn something new…)

Here are a few of the figure Cahill quotes:

The UK’s top five landowners (excluding the Crown Estate, the Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission):

Duke of Buccleuch, Acreage: 270,900
Value: £598m
Subsidy Entitlement: £20.4m

Estate of Atholl (Dukedom), Acreage: 147,000
Value: £200m
Subsidy Entitlement: £11.0m

Duchy of Cornwall, Acreage: 141,000
Value: £480m
Subsidy Entitlement: £10.6m

Duke of Northumberland, Acreage: 132,000

Value: £463m
Subsidy Entitlement: £9.9m

Duke of Westminster (excl London), Acreage: 129,000
Value: £450m
Subsidy Entitlement: £9.2m

I find it intriguing that Cahill uses the Irish example that advance the view that home, and by extension land ownership, is part of the democratisation of society. The redistribution or land in the south of the island of Ireland after 1922 was part of the throwing off of the chains of English imperialism and about the reconnection of thew Irish people with their land. This seems logical when laid out in such a fashion, at least it seems logical to my anarchic tendencies anyway. But due to home ownerships associations with Thatcher and flogging off of State property in the 1980s in the English tradition home-ownership is seen differently. I’d always treated home ownership as petty bourgeois behaviour, not to be encouraged. The argument advanced by the Labour left in the 1980s should perhaps not have focussed on a “class war”-lite approach on the basis of ownership, but on the selling off of public resources and privatisation of housing provision. These were certainly arguments that were made to degree but Thatcher’s campaign of people owning their own home was a success perhaps because it spoke to a part of people that desires a “little place to call their own”.

Ultimately however the issue is one of land-ownership not home-ownership. After all how many people actually own their own home “lock, stock and barrel”? Very few, most homes are owned by banks, as is demonstrated by the foreclosures and repossessions of homes during the current recession.

The issue of land ownership arose in the English tradition in groups such as the Chartists and early Socialists in the early 19th Century. Additionally Ebenezer Howard and Garden City movement held a desire for land to be owned in common, as was instigated in the setting up of Garden City Associations, whom collectively and publicly owned the land of the garden city.

This seems particularly pertinent to my PhD which is looking at ways of opening up, of democratising, architecture, in particular housing, to those beyond the architectural professions or without the financial means to opt-out of mainstream housing. As the prohibitive costs of property pushes more people out of the housing market (even those who do want to own) the clearly inequitable distribution of land exacerbates a complex and thus far insoluble problem, the challenge of “housing the people”

So unlike a Thatcherite home-owning democracy a true democracy socially, politically and architecturally can only be achieved when we are a land-owning democracy, all land held in common for all the people.

All my posts on this site also appear on my personal blog at http://aviewfromtheinterior.net/


About Michael Coates

Michael is a Principal Lecturer for Contextual Studies at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a PhD student in architecture history at the Univeristy of Sheffield.

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