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Favourite books: why is so much of England's land is owned by so few?

Sarah Featherstone

The case for a modern land reform strategy strikes a chord with Sarah Featherstone whose own practice is involved in Velocity, an initiative tackling critical issues in the countryside

The housing crisis is shining a spotlight on the countryside, which means now more than ever we need to think differently about where and what kind of housing we should be building there. With ever increasing land values, understanding who owns and controls the land is key to unlocking it for truly affordable housing, as the housing crisis is effectivelya land crisis.

I stumbled across this book because of the work I’ve been doing as part of VeloCity, which is a strategic vision tackling some of the most critical issues facing the countryside today with focus on reinvigorating village communities. Petra Marko and I were researching land reform as we wanted to find out how just a few people have ended up owning almost all the land in the country. Apparently some 50% of England is owned by less than 1% of the population, and the worry is that many members of that 1% aren’t being as responsible as they could be.

This inequity is one of the things that Guy Shrubsole looks at in Who Owns England? This is an overtly political book which deals with the big issues around land ownership, the selling off of public land, increasing land values, land banking and the destruction of our natural environment through unsustainable farming. Shrubsole pushes for a modern land reform strategy to help solve the housing crisis by championing land value capture and giving more control of land to communities by promoting schemes such as Community Right to Buy as seen in Scotland.

It’s a very stimulating read and an interesting record of about what’s been done in the past to enable more affordable housing and for people to have greater control over land.  From the 1920s to the 1970s there was more effective change – for example, under Attlee’s government councils were able to buy land cheaply through CPOs and a tax was introduced on the uplift in land value as result of planning approval, but both have since been abolished by subsequent governments. So while there has been some rebalance in the long run, not that much was achieved, and there is still a need for new land reforms.  

As many architects will have experienced, gaining information on land ownership from the Land Registry can be difficult, lengthy and costly, but Shrubsole and his colleagues are incredibly dogged and there are lots of anecdotes about their efforts to gain information fusing Freedom of Information requests and other means.  One incident ended up with the Land Registry ‘accidentally’ releasing a huge database of information which led to it having to officially open it to all and for free.

It’s a fascinating to read that land William the Conqueror took in 1066 to give his friends is today pretty much owned by the same families. According to Shrubsole's research, aristocracy and landed gentry still own at least 30% of England, largely because primogeniture inheritance means that the land stays within the male side of the family and is never broken up.  So we still have very large tracts of land under single ownership.

There are signs of change though. Shrubsole recognises that some landowners want to alter how they manage land and do things more sustainably. He mentions the Kindersley’s estate at Sheepdrove and the rewilding project at Knepp. We have found that Blenheim Estate, whom VeloCity is working with, is also keen to do things differently. With Blenheim we have developed a strategy that looks not only to protect the environment but create better-connected communities and more responsible housing that disincentivises car use, has a low carbon footprint and values the land’s natural capital.

What I like is that despite the anger he channels at the elitist state of land ownership, there is a lot of positivity in the book. At the end, he sets out a clear way forward with 10 Demands for land reform – action points such as stopping the sale of public land, providing councils with the means to buy land for affordable housing; allowing more open access to the land; and ensuring that big landowners are aware of their responsibilities.

This subject has direct relevance for my work, not just at a strategic level with VeloCity, but also with the rural housing projects we have with Featherstone Young.  A lot of the focus for new development is understandably still on cities. But I think we are going to see an increasing pressure for new housing in the countryside and it’s vital that we know how the countryside operates and is controlled so that we can help influence a more sustainable approach to rural development. 

It’s really important for architects to understand the amount of control and leverage large landowners have. By covering so many aspects, this book equips us to understand the system better.  As architects we have a voice, and we can work with landowners to do things differently and in such a way that still benefits them, but also the wider community, and brings with it more long–term value rather than short-term gain.

Sarah Featherstone, director, Featherstone Young Architects, was in conversation with Pamela Buxton

See why RSHP’s Tracy Meller’s choose Humankind by Rutger Bregman as her favourite book