‘Landowners like to portray themselves as wise stewards of the earth,’ writes Guy Shrubsole, ‘but all too many of them abuse their property for short-term profit.’ Several years ago, he decided to find out who owned England’s countryside. He was amazed by how difficult the task proved. Why were large landowners so coy about revealing what they owned? Why were the authorities so reluctant to make the information available?
The way landowners behave has implications for how we grow our food, build our homes and treat nature. Intensive farming, according to Shrubsole, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, means that we are in the throes of an epoch-defining environmental crisis. ‘And all the while, our society has grown obscenely unequal, with wealth concentrated in the hands of a tiny few – including the ownership of land.’
Actually, the UK Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, has remained fairly constant since the early 1990s. However, there is no disputing the fact that most of the land in England belongs to a relatively small number of people. Shrubsole takes particular pleasure in excoriating the privileges of the aristocracy and gentry, who own 30 per cent of the land in England, and the rapacity of the new rich, who have bought around 17 per cent of it. The ancestors of today’s aristocracy, he states, ‘stole vast swathes of our land through bloodshed, conquest and enclosure’. As for new money, he believes that many recent buyers – including Russians, Kazakhs and Saudi sheikhs – are even less concerned with notions of belonging and giving back to the community than those families who have been here for generations.
Shrubsole suggests that the democratisation of landownership would lead to more sustainable farming practices and he approvingly quotes the green campaigner George Monbiot, who claims that aristocratic estates ‘tend to be 500 acres of pleasant greenery amidst 10,000 laid waste by the same owner’s plough’. The truth is that some landowners do mistreat their land. Others, however, go to considerable lengths not only to farm sustainably but also to look after nature. And small is not necessarily beautiful. I have seen plenty of poor husbandry and unsustainable cropping practices on small farms.
There was a time, some thirty years ago, when I was much taken with the idea of land reform as a way of tackling inequality and saving wildlife. Like Shrubsole, I was strongly influenced by the writings of such campaigners as Marion Shoard, whose The Theft of the Countryside was one of the great environment jeremiads of the 1980s. In those days, my ideas grew out of the reformist zeal nurtured in conservation studies, but I began to think differently as I spent more time talking to, and writing about, people making a living from the land. No doubt land reform could reduce the inequalities in landownership. However, other measures are needed if we are to address the problems associated with poor agricultural practices, habitat destruction and the loss of wildlife. It is what we do to the land, rather than who owns it, that really matters.
Shrubsole is an entertaining guide to the history of landownership, although his jaunty left-wing populism and tabloidesque clichés (aristocrats swagger, Churchill growls, Daily Mail headlines scream) can grate at times. The fact that he takes most of his oral evidence from campaigners, conservationists and journalists, and seems to have had little contact with landowners and farmers, sometimes leads to caricature. For example, he visits Arundel and remarks that the Dukes of Norfolk ‘lord it over this part of Sussex’. In a pub garden he muses that little has changed in the past millennium: ‘Feudalism lived on; deference had never died.’
When I was writing about wildlife management issues a few years ago, I spent some time with the Duke of Norfolk. The least lordly and most approachable of aristocrats, he was working closely with ecologists such as the late Dick Potts, former director general of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, to create some of the finest wildlife habitat on the South Downs. But Shrubsole prefers to remind us of a few lines from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’: ‘The rich man in his castle,/The poor man at his gate’.
Some of the measures advocated by Shrubsole make good sense. He calls for an end to the secrecy around landownership. He believes that we should get rid of the EU’s area-based subsidies to landowners and only give out public money in return for public good, which is precisely what Michael Gove’s agricultural reforms will eventually do, assuming we leave the EU. He makes a good case for expanding the network of local authority ‘county farms’ – a first step onto the farming ladder for aspiring tenants – and for rewilding parts of England’s uplands. He would also like to see improved public access to the countryside.
More radically, he calls for the establishment of an English Land Commission, which could consider changing the laws on land inheritance to the old Kentish tradition of gavelkind, which saw estates divided equally between heirs. This would break up the big landed estates within a few generations. Alternatively, he suggests closing the loopholes used by large landowners to avoid inheritance tax.
Shrubsole says his investigation made his blood boil. ‘I hope it does the same for you, too,’ he tells the reader. It certainly made me think more deeply about landownership, even if I believe that what really matters is the way we use the land, rather than the names on the title deeds. In his final chapter, he writes: ‘The figures are staggering: we can conclude from them that 25,000 landowners – far less than 1 per cent of the population – own half of England.’ Some of these landowners are doubtless pursuing short-term profits, as Shrubsole maintains. But the vast majority are involved in food production. It is centuries since we were an agrarian society, so it should come as no surprise that relatively few people are involved in the task of feeding the nation – and are prepared to bear the risks and costs involved in an often precarious way of life.