The Sunday Mail
Who Owns England? The question sounds oblique, when one considers the country’s documented long history of “civilisation”. One would think that, by now, this question should have long been settled. Yet, not at all.
The question of who owns most of England remains an emotive issue, to the extent that some are calling for a radical and equitable land distribution exercise.
It surely must rate as one of the ironies of modern history; a country that seemed so much peeved by the manner in which land was redistributed in Zimbabwe, could be holding dark secrets of its own in regards to land ownership.
In a 2019 polemic book titled “Who Owns England? How We Lost our Green & Pleasant Land and How to Take It Back”, Guy Shrubsole pours his heart out about how the skewed land ownership in his native country has contributed to the emotional and physical enslavement and deprivation of the majority of citizens.
Shrubsole’s lamentations about the skewed nature of land ownership in Britain, resonates with what President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently said during a state visit to Namibia, when he told journalists: “We did not take the land because we wanted to make it productive. We took it back because it’s ours. So how we use it is entirely up to our people.”
Similarly, Shrubsole begins by a quote from Norman MacCaig which asks a very pertinent question: “Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?”
While Zimbabwe prides itself in having corrected a historical land imbalance and liberated the land from the stranglehold of a privileged racial group, the same cannot be said of Britain. This is not to say that they have not been attempts by landless people to take matters into their hands by occupying vacant lands.
In a review of Shrabsole’s book in The Guardian of May 2019, P.D Smith says that in 1649, when Britain was tearing itself apart during the civil war, a motley crew of landless commoners moved on to St. George’s Hill in Surrey and began cultivating land they did not own. The leader of this group, who were known as the Diggers, was George Winstanley: “I took my spade and went and broke the ground…thereby declaring freedom to the creation, and that the earth must be set free from entanglements of lords and landlords, and that it shall become a common treasury for all.”
For the Diggers, P.D Smith asserts that the execution of the king that year was the symbolic moment when “the common people of England” cast off the “Norman yoke” and were liberated from the landowning elite that had enslaved them since the Norman conquest.
Of course, the Diggers’ freedom was short-lived as they were soon evicted. What is more, the land the Diggers occupied is now dubbed “Britain’s Beverly Hills”, a gated estate of exclusive properties, of which 72 – worth 282 million pounds – are owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens.
Any African reading this book will be startled by the undemocratic nature of land ownership in one of the countries in the world that prides itself as the paragon of fairness and equal opportunity. From an African perspective, reading “Who Owns England?” is like eavesdropping or peeping into the master’s bedroom and hearing all the gory family secrets. It is unbelievable, bewildering and embarrassing that in 2019, Britain is still talking about unfair land distribution.
In reading the book, one gets the impression that indeed land ownership is Britain’s oldest, darkest, best-kept secret. Shrubsole, an activist for Friends of the Earth, seems to have dedicated the last few years to uncovering who truly owns the land. Using complex data sets from the Land Registry, freedom of information requests, and other tools that are publicly available thanks to EU environmental rules, he has managed to take off the veil of secrecy by stating that “the long term concealment of who owns England appears to (him) to be one of the clearest cases of a cover-up in English history.”
Shrubsole traces history from the Norman conquest, when William the Conqueror divided up Britain among his barons, to the enclosure of 6.8 million acres of common land between 1604 and 1914 (“a land grab of criminal proportions”), Shrubsole illuminates on how the land has been methodically stolen from ordinary and declares: “Today most of us are landless.”
Would you believe that most Britons are landless? Of course, they are not a huge country, so not everyone can have a piece of land. However, it surely cannot be normal that half of England since it is owned by less than one percent of the population. It is shocking that according to Shrubsole, nothing seems to have changed in the last 1000 years. The figures in “Who Owns England?” expose that the nobility and landed gentry – many being the descendants of those Norman barons – still own at least 30% of England. They likely hold far more, as 17% of the land is not registered by the Land Registry and is probably inherited land that has never been bought or sold.
So sad is the land ownership pattern that Shrubsole says only a “few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own farm more land than all of Middle England put together.”
Is it a surprise, then, that Britain’s opposition to land reform in Zimbabwe and all across Africa, has been driven by powerful lobbies backed by the same British gentry that owns much of England?
When looked critically, one realises that humanity reacts to survival issues in the same way. Just like us Africans, land is paramount because it is a common resource that we depend on for food, homes, natural landscapes that keep our environment clean, provides fresh water and, above all, gives us a sense of identity.
And in the modern era, land ownership is vital in tackling some of the pressing issues facing the world today, such as housing, degradation of the environment and the growing inequalities blighting the world.
In essence, Shrubsole convincingly maintains that land should be a common good used for the benefit of everyone. This requires a programme of land reform, which Shrubsole likens to the one that has been pursued in Scotland over the last 20 years, opening up access to land and introducing community buy-out legislation.
More like Chenjerai Hunzvi or Joseph Chinotimba, Shrubsole ends the book in a vary combative mood;
“If you want to see the housing crisis fixed, nature restored and land ownership become more equal, put down this book and take action. Join the rising tide of people in this country now demanding land reform: then do everything you can to make change happen: speak to the media, pressure your MP, start community group, protest, campaign – act. This land is our land. Let’s take it back.”
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