There can be few such good decisions by individuals in history as to have been a Norman baron in the mid 11th Century than pledging allegiance to William The Conqueror in return for land in the British Isles.
It’s quite incredible that 1,000 years later one way or the other, an overwhelming number of their descendants remain in control of an incredible amount of wealth, properties and positions of influence from the Royal Family downwards to seemingly almost normal figures in politics, showbiz and popular culture.
This legacy is perhaps most obvious of all when it comes to land and property ownership. After the devastating Battle of Hastings, William The Conqueror occupied these lands with just 8,000 men and in a way, they are still occupying us today.
Half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population, according to new research. The findings, described as “astonishingly unequal”, suggest that about 25,000 landowners – typically members of the aristocracy and corporations – have control of half of the country.
The figures show that if the land were distributed evenly across England’s population, each person would have just over half an acre – an area roughly half the size of Parliament Square in central London.
Given that, I thought I would see how I compare with my ‘fair share’ of land ownership and so using the same scale, I have cut and pasted my property over half of Parliament Square. It should be noted that due to the disparages of scale between Parliament Square and my house, I’m not quite able to fit all of Parliament Square and due to the vagaries of Google Maps, my house and garden is at a rather inconvenient angle.
So there we have it, 28 of my area of England don’t even fill half of Parliament Square. If we were going purely on fairness, I’d calculate that I have 35-40 times less land than in a perfect world, I would be entitled too. Being very well aware that there are at least a few million people who either own nothing at all or even small flats (apartments), I still find it hard to think it isn’t entirely fair.
How the might have fallen, given I am descended from the brother of Anglo-Saxon King Harold of 1066 fame. So if I am anything to go by, given that Anglo-Saxons don’t own much of our country, just who does?
Jon Trickett, Labour MP and shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, hailed the significance of the findings and called for a full debate on the issue, adding: “The dramatic concentration of land ownership is an inescapable reminder that ours is a country for the few and not the many.
“It’s simply not right that aristocrats, whose families have owned the same areas of land for centuries, and large corporations exercise more influence over local neighbourhoods – in both urban and rural areas – than the people who live there.
“Land is a source of wealth, it impacts on house prices, it is a source of food and it can provide enjoyment for millions of people.”
Guy Shrubsole, author of the book in which the figures are revealed, Who Owns England?, argues that the findings show a picture that has not changed for centuries. “Most people remain unaware of quite how much land is owned by so few,” he writes, adding: “A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together.”
“Land ownership in England is astonishingly unequal, heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. The aristocracy and gentry still own around 30% of England”. This may even be an underestimate, as the owners of 17% of England and Wales remain undeclared at the Land Registry. The most likely owners of this undeclared land are aristocrats, as many of their estates have remained in their families for centuries.
As these estates have not been sold on the open market, their ownership does not need to be recorded at the Land Registry, the public body responsible for keeping a database of land and property in England and Wales.
Shrubsole estimates that 18% of England is owned by corporations, some of them based overseas or in offshore jurisdictions. He has based this calculation on a spreadsheet of land owned by all UK-registered companies that has been released by the Land Registry. From this spreadsheet, he has listed the top 100 landowning companies.
The list is headed by a large water company, United Utilities, which said that much of its land consisted of areas immediately surrounding its reservoirs.
Prominent on the list are the Boughton estate in Northamptonshire, belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch, the Woburn estate, which is owned by the Duke of Bedford, and the Badminton estate in Gloucestershire, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort. Several large grouse moor estates also figure prominently.
Shrubsole, who works as a campaigner for the environmental charity Friends of the Earth, estimates that “a handful of newly moneyed industrialists, oligarchs and City bankers” own around 17% of England.
The public sector – central and local government, and universities – appears to be the most open about its landholdings, according to Shrubsole, partly in order to advertise land it has wanted to sell off in recent years. He concludes that the public sector owns 8% of England.
Shrubsole writes that the bulk of the population owns very little land or none at all. Those who own homes in England, in total, own only 5% of the country.
He calculates that the land under the ownership of the royal family amounts to 1.4% of England. This includes the Crown Estate, the Queen’s personal estate at Sandringham, Norfolk, and the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, which provide income to members of the family.
Conservation charities, such as the National Trust and the Woodland Trust, collectively own 2% of England, while the church accounts for 0.5%.
A small number of ultra-wealthy individuals have traditionally owned vast swaths of land in Scotland. A recent major review conducted by the Scottish Land Commission, a government quango, found that big landowners behaved like monopolies across large areas of rural Scotland and had too much power over land use, economic investment and local communities. Radical reforms on land-ownership was concluded.
Carys Roberts, chief economist of the left-of-centre thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said she was “shocked but not surprised” by Shrubsole’s findings on the concentration of land ownership. She said that the concentration of land in a few hands was a big reason why wealth as a whole was so unequal in the country, as those without land were prevented from generating more income.
She added: “We have this idea that the class structures have changed so that the aristocracy is not as important as it used to be. What this demonstrates is the continuing importance of the aristocracy in terms of wealth and power in our society.”
She said one effect of the sale of public land was that the public lost democratic control of that land and it could not then be used, for example, for housing or environmental improvements. “You can’t make the best social use of it,” she added.
Despite the land inequalities, the UK has the third highest number of millionaires in the world despite the relatively small population. This figure might seem incongruous with the main body of this blog post but when you consider that a 1 bedroom flat in London can easily cost over £10 million, it is easy to see how being a millionaire might not get you very much at all at least in terms of personal space.
Of course, the vast majority of people however aren’t millionaires.
If you’d like to see just a few of my posts of Anglo-Saxon England then feast below!