Book Review from the January 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
Brett Christophers: The New Enclosure: the Appropriation of Public Land In Neoliberal Britain. Verso £11.99.
The original enclosures took place in England from around the sixteenth century and led to much agricultural land coming under the exclusive control of large landowners. Here Brett Christophers examines a process in some ways comparable, which has essentially happened since Thatcher came to power in 1979: public land (a terminology we will return to below) has been sold to private companies. This has resulted in remarkably little protest or press coverage, perhaps in part because it has been carried out piecemeal, unlike big privatisations such as British Gas or the railways.
It is difficult to be absolutely certain, given the poor quality of record-keeping, but perhaps as much as £400bn worth of land has been privatised. Most of this (roughly a million hectares) has been land owned by local government, such as council estates and school playing-fields. This constitutes around 60 percent of land owned by local authorities, about twice the proportion of central government land that has been sold; this latter includes land belonging to the NHS, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence.
The sell-offs provided funds for government coffers, of course, but privatisation was also justified on the basis that there was lots of supposedly surplus land in the hands of both local and central government. Selling this would make it available for private developers to build homes, offices and so on. But what counted as surplus was never properly defined, and the proportion of vacant land was probably even greater in the private sector. House-building corporations own plenty of developable land, but it is not always profitable for them to build on it. One survey of a hundred sites that had been sold found that just two per cent of the homes planned to be built there had actually been completed. Instead, the companies go in for land-banking, hoarding land so as to keep house prices high.
Christophers provides a very thorough analysis of the history, motivations and consequences of land privatisation. He is aware that the concept of public land needs clarifying, and he defines it as ‘land owned by public bodies’. It is not the same as common land, which implies right of public access and use, whoever owns it, and still forms about five per cent of the British land mass. But public land is emphatically not the people’s land, any more than the National Coal Board or British Gas were owned by the people.
There are relatively few reformist proposals about land. The Labour Party manifesto for last year’s election made no reference to land nationalisation, and only said it would review the possibility of a land value tax. Christophers ends by supporting the idea of community land trusts, involving community ownership on a non-profit basis, though these can still involve the private sector. Instead, the earth should be, as Gerrard Winstanley argued, ‘a common treasury for all’.