Sign saying 'Private Keep out' by a field in England

How could land in England be reformed for the commons?

Driven by deep inequalities and ecological crises, and inspired by progress in Scotland, social movements are advocating for England’s land to be governed more as a common resource. By Elise Wach

Generally, when people in England think of land reform movements, we tend to imagine that that they happen in places where people still depend directly on the land for their subsistence (i.e. agrarian countries). So perhaps we conjure up Zimbabwe’s contentious land reforms, or the MST in Brazil. While England has historically been ground zero for changes to land property regimes, most of the population isn’t keen to have a smallholding, and we tend to think of property rights as relatively ‘settled’ here.

Yet, in this de-agrarianised, high-income country, a growing number of organisations and social movements are working towards changing our land-based property system to support changes to the countryside. Why are people advocating changes and what does this entail? Are these utopian visions or do they have legs?

Our land system affects what foods are available and how food is produced. It dictates who has access to housing, who has access to green spaces, and it determines where we get our energy from. As MSP Andy Whitman says, ‘Land is about power… how it’s derived, how its distributed, how its exercised and how its transferred.’ Currently, our land system creates and maintains deep inequalities both in England and in the countries from which we import food, energy and other goods, in what can be considered neocolonial extractivism. While land is essential for all human life, it is allocated to those who can afford to buy it or who can inherit it, rather than to those who need it, or who can use it for public benefit.

The UK is currently one of the most unequal countries in the world in relation to land distribution – less than 1% of the population owns half of England, though nearly 20% of England’s land is not even included in the land registry.

These inequalities are exacerbated along lines of race, gender and class. In the UK, black people and other people of colour have significantly less access to land, the countryside and green spaces than their white counterparts. Farming and other land-based work are the least racially diverse professions in the UK. Only 32% of black people are homeowners compared with 68% of white Britons. Women are significantly less able to purchase or rent a home on their own compared with men. Upper class elites (both British and non-British) and middle class people dominate the countryside, while people who might actually work the land are stymied by exorbitant prices, lack of appropriate properties and prohibitive planning policies.

We have a narrative that land is very limited here, but there is enough land for every person to have nearly 1 acre each across the UK, which is more than is available to the populations of 51 other countries. Not all of that land can be utilised, of course, but there is enormous scope for the majority of the population to access more land. While most people in England don’t aspire to engage in land-based work, a surprising number of people do, as illustrated by the popularity of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, and rapidly growing memberships of ecological growing associations. Increasing the number of people on the land is essential for converting unsustainable farming practices to more ecologically viable production. Yet the lack of access to land is an enormous barrier to people’s ability to create sustainable land-based livelihoods.

Caravans for migrant fruit pickers at a farm in the Midlands, 2018. Photo: Graham Hogg (cc by-sa 2.0)

In agrarian countries, land redistribution, or re-allocating land to households on a more equitable basis, has tended to dominate land reform efforts, perhaps because having a smallholding is more of the norm, and can help provide people with a buffer against crises such as Covid-19. In England, however, most people cannot make a connection between having land and being able to eat when there’s a crisis. Many people in England have become disconnected from the land here, and most people cannot fathom how cornflakes came from something that grew in a field. Earning a living from farming is not easy or straightforward either, with extremely small returns on most foods. Compounding this is a stigma attached to farming careers.

Yet perhaps because of this disconnect from our food and land, and because of these difficulties of ‘making it work’ financially with farming, the land reform efforts in England have tended to focus less on individual access (though some do advocate redistribution of private property) and more on the collective good, along the lines of treating land as a whole as common resource to be used in the public interest, and also inspired by Scotland.

The reforms being proposed are wide ranging, but here are just a few of them – from minor tweaks through to more substantial efforts to democratise land governance and address inequalities and injustices.

Right to Roam

In England, the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act was passed in 2000, giving people the ‘Right to Roam’ in about 8% of England. A new campaign in England is advocating a modest expansion of CRoW to cover rivers, woodlands, green belts and downland. In Scotland, by contrast, people have the ‘right to roam’ on nearly all land and lochs. While CRoW doesn’t directly address deeper issues of inequality in access, it does call into question the ‘right to exclude’ in the notion of property rights, and could help more people to feel a sense of belonging and connection with their natural environments.

Changes to planning policy

Land use decisions (i.e. planning decisions) in rural areas have been largely guided by the principle of preventing too much development on agricultural land and woodland. This has helpfully prevented urban sprawl, but has also had the effect of making housing out of reach for land workers, preventing low-impact developments, and generally contributing to a depopulated countryside.

The Land Workers Alliance advocates for planning reform to allow people engaged in agriculture, horticulture and/or managing low impact land holdings to live in rural areas. Similarly, Shared Assets advocates for changes to planning to align with more social and environmental considerations. Together, these changes could help to shift land-use decisions towards the common good, reduce inequalities in land access, and support more ecological farming practices, which require more people — with their labour and knowledge—on the land.

Reparations and repair

Land In Our Names (LION), a grassroots collective of Black people and people of colour, works towards land justice through a framework of reparative justice and racial justice, recognising that land is power, and that in Britain land has historically been appropriated through racialised violence.

Its projects and advocacy are wide ranging, including grants for black people and people of colour to engage in land based work, solidarity and support for people to reconnect to the land, research into the specific barriers to land based livelihoods for black people and people of colour, and also a call for reparations, through concessions of power and space, for black people and people of colour ‘to repair and heal.’ While not yet tabled officially, discourse has drawn attention to Barbados’ intention to demand reparations from MP Richard Drax and other families who were architects of and benefitted from slavery. LION also works to support an ‘ecosystem’ of BPOC land workers, land justice activists, etc. 

Community Right to Buy

A significant aspect of Scotland’s land reform has been the enactment of a series of ‘Community Right to Buy’ schemes. These allow groups of people to acquire and manage property for the public interest, often with financial support from government, and in some cases even when it is not on the market.

While there are limitations in its practice, community land ownership has led to more affordable housing, rural repopulation, and skill and community development in resolving conflicts and making group decisions, all of which are vital for democratic governance of land. If this existed in England, it could create a route for poorly managed land and buildings to be used for community interests, preventing gentrification and land banking.

Land Value Tax

While the name might make some people shudder and others yawn (hence an alternative but equally dull title of ‘Land Value Rating’), LVT is supported by conservatives and liberals alike, and was even advocated by Churchill in 1909. Underpinning LVT is a sense that the public, rather than individuals, should be the ones to benefit from uplifts in land values.

LVT could result in a number of public benefits, such as creating a sustainable source of public revenue, preventing land speculation and reducing instability in the land and housing markets. Again, this reform reflects the notion that the benefits of land should not accrue solely to individuals who have the privilege of ownership, but should be shared by society as a whole.

Public interest tests

If land is power, then large tracts of land have more potential impacts on the public and the environment than smaller ones. In response to highly concentrated land ownership in Scotland, a Government consultation is currently underway for a potential new ‘public interest test for significant land acquisition.’ While a public interest test has not been specifically tabled by social movements in England yet, it could be on the horizon, especially considering the worrying trend of English land consolidation.

The future of land in England

The examples above give an idea of the range of reforms being demanded in England. They might get us closer to a society in which property law reflects land’s ‘social function,’ as is now stipulated in Bolivian and Brazilian constitutions and is reflected in Scotland’s Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement.

While these reforms will not radically address the societal and ecological failures of our existing land system in the short term, they indicate that people are starting to think about land less as an individual asset, and more as a collective good.

Cover image: Right to Roam by Steve Calcott (cc by-nc 2.0) / Flickr