Patterns of land ownership in the UK are deeply unequal with a small percentage of the population owning the bulk of its land. Helene Schulze follows a growing movement calling for land justice and a reframing of land as a public luxury not a private good.
When unpicking some of the key non-COVID crises of our time, we quickly find that at the root of many, if not most, of these is the deeply unequal distribution of one of our most essential resources: land. Whether we are speaking of economic inequity, mental health, the housing crisis, food security or racial injustice, we can find ties to the concentration of land ownership.
Land makes up 51% of the UK’s net worth. However, the UK also has one of the highest concentrations of land ownership in Europe – 50% of land is owned by just 1% of the population. Yet information about who these landowners are and how much they own is really challenging to access. To make matters worse, tax breaks and a problematic subsidy system has further encouraged the consolidation of land.
The system as is drives wealth accumulation; the landed rich get richer whilst the housing crises pushes some of our most marginalised and vulnerable members of society into deeper poverty. Public amenities are squeezed out as private ownership trumps public good.
Land for the Many, a Labour Party report, edited by George Monbiot and co-authored by several eminent land experts, articulates it such:
“the aim of this report is to argue for changes in the way land is used and controlled in the UK, to meet social needs, enhance environmental quality and create cohesive, empowered communities and a more stable, effective economy. This shift will help to ensure that the UK becomes a more equal, inclusive and generous-spirited nation, with a stronger sense of togetherness and belonging.”
They follow with “the guiding principle of this report is private sufficiency and public luxury.” This is a powerful idea and one which throws the entire system of land ownership on its head. The authors of the Labour Party report argue that there is simply not enough physical or ecological space for land to be a private luxury – we cannot all own swimming pools and tennis courts. But if we reframed land as a public luxury, we would have space for many more spectacular public parks, outdoor sports facilities, and nature reserves. This would allow so many more to profit from the peace, joy, fitness, and social connection these spaces provide.
Spaces where individuals and groups feel empowered and able to try out projects, learn skills, share food, relax and play together can do wonders to foster social cohesion, creativity and active participation in public life. These could be community growing sites, children’s playgrounds, interactive art exhibitions or community feasts. They offer spaces to interact with people we do not know, try out something new and look after one-another. Access to such spaces seems to me to be a central tenant of food citizenship.
As a guerrilla gardener, I am constantly shocked at how much derelict and underused space there is in the city in which I live. The plot of land some friends and I are currently cultivating has been unused for the last seven years. Within a month we turned it into an abundant garden with and for the local community to grow food together, host workshops and provide a habitat for wildlife. Especially in bustling and polluted urban centres where many are cooped up in small flats, public green spaces are a lifeline. We are lucky that the local authority has been very supportive and allowed us to stay until the next development, when we will move to a different site. But this is not the norm.
From this small, local experience, I wonder how we can make this a more common practice. How can local authorities encourage citizen participation in land development? What can businesses do? How could we incentivise developers to offer land for communal use? Could we ensure that all ‘meanwhile’ spaces like our little garden are open to the local community to try out their projects or ideas, even if it is just for a few months or years?
This is deeply entangled with the project of building robust and resilient food communities. Tom Carman of Shared Assets, unpacks this connection in a blog on citizen action on land access, arguing that community access to land is essential for a transition to more just, localised food systems.
Maybe it sounds idealistic, but I am convinced that vibrant, inviting community spaces are central to creating cohesive, inclusive, and caring societies. These spaces rely on land which is open to be used. They rely on an appreciation of land as a public luxury, something for the collective good and not only for private financial gain. Let’s practise being a ‘generous-spirited nation’ and share in the nourishment and connection public space can bring.