A massive issue facing the UK at the moment is right under our noses and indeed right under our feet. That issue is land. Though land injustice may stem from historical legislation such as the Enclosure Acts and the shrinking of the commons through large-scale land grabs over past centuries, the phenomenon continues today, with land inequality becoming ever-increasingly stark. Land is moving more and more from public control into wealthy private hands, with land and housing prices rocketing over recent decades as a result of speculative inflation. In 1995 the total value of land in the UK was around £1 trillion, that figure is now more than £5 trillion.
Although on a surface level land may only appear to be of importance to farmers and landlords, land justice encompasses so many aspects of social and environmental justice in the UK, and should be a matter of concern to us all. It underpins the homelessness epidemic, soaring property prices, a shrinking of the right to roam, loss of public spaces in cities, and environmental abuse, among a plethora of other important issues.
Labour as an opposition party have sought to address land injustice more prominently since the Conservatives took power in 2010. The release of their landmark reports (pardon the pun) Housing for the Many in 2018 and Land for the Many earlier this year have placed land justice back on the political agenda. The newly released 2019 Labour Manifesto, though spanning a vast range of pledges and objectives, does within its 104 pages also serve to address specific issues of land justice. On page 21 it declares land a ‘public good’, but highlights the fact that it is not a common asset, and that it is increasingly being devolved into private sector hands; it subsequently addresses various aspects of land injustice in terms of housing, agriculture and the environment.
Here is a breakdown of the appearances land justice makes in the 2019 Labour manifesto, and how it could bring about changes in UK, and more locally to Norwich and Norfolk.
“We will keep the Land Registry in public hands, and make ownership of land more transparent” (p. 78)
There is a complete lack of transparency of land ownership records in the UK. In Norfolk, thousands of acres of land lie unregistered. This does not mean that the land is not under ownership, indeed a large portion of unregistered land is easily identifiable as common land, or as nature reserves, however many unregistered plots belong to private businesses such as golf clubs. Although it is not illegal to not register pieces of owned land, it does make it harder for the government and the public to trace and identify ownership. However, even if you were to try and find ownership details of the plots and areas which have been registered on the Land Registry and are technically open to the public, you would actually have to pay to access the records. Each title costs £3 to access, and although this isn’t a large sum, the financial barrier as well as lack of information and inside-knowledge, places local communities and the wider general public at a disadvantage when attempting to buy land or settle disputes with wealthy existing land holders. Transparency of land ownership should be a public right.
“We will invest in more county farms to replace those lost” (p. 23)
The number of County Farms – farms which are owned by local authorities and rented to young and new farmers – have halved in the past 40 years according to a study by Who Owns England. Norfolk’s County Farm Estate is the third largest in England, and it’s 16,900 acres are rented out to over 145 different tenants. In January this year, four County Farms in Norfolk were advertised for new tenancy. Maintenance of County Farms such as these is crucial to local rural employment, small-scale farming, and entry of young prospective farmers into the agricultural sector.
“Labour will set up a new English Sovereign Land Trust, with powers to buy land more cheaply for low-cost housing.” (p.78)
As outlined by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a significant barrier to the delivery of affordable housing is inflated land values. Labour’s April 2018 green paper entitled Housing for the Many stipulated that “tackling the high price of land is essential to ensuring the delivery of more affordable homes.” On the outskirts of Norwich, the village of Rackheath has been described as Norfolk’s ‘fastest growing village’, as in recent years Broadland District Council have approved schemes to build nearly 5,000 new homes. A development plan for 4,000 of these homes that was endorsed by councillors in March 2018, however, only allocated 10% of these houses as affordable homes due to concerns over the economic viability of the development; severely undercutting the 33% affordable housing requirement level for such developments in the area. This new Land Trust which Labour refer to, would work with local authorities to buy land at existing values. It could therefore allow for increased viability in housing development projects, allowing for cheaper acquisition of land, and therefore helping to commit to affordable housing requirements and improving local low-cost housing stock.
“We will use public land to build this housing, not sell it off to the highest bidder” (p.78)
By maintaining development plots as public land rather than selling it off to private property developers it ensures that local affordable housing quotas are met, and keeps home-building as a social project rather than a profiteering scheme. Additionally, land kept in public hands allows for the expansion of valuable social and environmental assets such as more public space in cities, urban green spaces, recreational parks, and space for allotments.
“We will stop housing costs running away from benefits by scrapping the bedroom tax and increasing the Local Housing Allowance.” (p.73)
As property prices soar, so do private market rent rates. The security of renting tenants is therefore being put at risk, forcing a rapidly increasingly number of households out of their homes and onto the streets. In Norwich, homelessness has soared over the past five years, with council spending on housing and homelessness shrinking by almost £5 million since 2009; a microcosm of the situation across UK. Scrapping bedroom tax and increasing the Local Housing Allowance – therefore allowing for more realistic and supportive housing benefit calculations – could mean that more people have the financial support they need to keep a roof over their head.
“A Labour government will maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but repurpose them to support environmental land management and sustainable methods of food production.” (p.23)
The UK food system is in desperate need of reform. In August, the IPCC published a report which focused on the links between land-use, climate change and food security. In terms of our environment and our dependency on the land for sustenance, we need to be managing the land and our food production systems in a more responsible and sustainable way. An excellent example of a small-scale local food production cooperative is Norwich Farmshare; a volunteer-supported farm with a vision for chemical-free, ecologically sensitive and sustainable agriculture at it’s core. Labour’s pledge for increased support for sustainable and environmentally-friendly land management could bolster small-scale projects such as Norwich Farmshare, while also supporting large-scale agriculture in their transition to more sustainable practice.
We will make brownfield sites the priority for development and protect the green belt. (p. 78)
Green Belts provide a connection to the land, to nature, and to the countryside for urban populations. Currently Norwich has no designated Green Belt, however in 2016 CPRE launched a #GreenBeltforNorfolk Petition in order to protect verdant land surrounding the city from new developments, and encouraging the use of ex-industrial brownfield sites as an alternative. This new Labour pledge could help to secure the integrity of precious countryside around the city and support the objective of CPRE’s local campaign.
“Establish an aid-funded Food Sovereignty Fund to enable smallscale farmers in the Global South to gain access to land, seeds and finance, and uphold indigenous peoples’ right to land.” (p.105)
Deviating from a UK perspective, the Manifesto also addresses systems of land injustice, exclusion and food sovereignty in an international perspective. Arguably one of the most damaging aspects of the colonising project was the expropriation of native lands and introduction of capitalistic land rights systems based on private ownership and exclusion; the legacy of which has resulted in the perpetuation of poverty as a result of lack of access to land for local populations. Labour’s internationalist agenda could help in going some way to rectify the wrongs of the past, and support land-users and rural populations through strengthening local land rights.
Turning back to the UK, George Monbiot, a principal author of Land for the Many, as well as an active figure in the UK land justice movement, is right in saying that a lack of understanding of underlying issues of land injustice results in a fundamental misunderstanding of surface issues such as housing shortages: “we blame the wrong causes for the cost and scarcity of housing: immigration, population growth, the green belt, red tape.” It’s time we recognised the real reasons behind inequality and deprivation in this country. A deeper understanding, and hence necessary adjustment, of national land and housing policy can offer the key to meaningful social transformation. Labour has therefore put land justice firmly on its political agenda, an issue which has the potential to unlock a variety of the UK’s social concerns and pave the way for a progressive system change. I’m right behind it.
To find out more about the land justice movement in the UK, or how you can get involved, check out the following links:
Land Justice Network: https://www.landjustice.uk/
Landworkers Alliance: https://landworkersalliance.org.uk/
The Land is Ours: http://tlio.org.uk/
Who Owns England: https://whoownsengland.org/about/
Featured image credit: Land Justice Network
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