Land Values: A Short History

The first man who, having enclosed a plot of ground, took upon himself to say ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how much misery and horror, would have been spared the human race if someone, tearing up the fence and filling in the ditch, had cried out to his fellow men: ‘Do not listen to this imposter! You are lost if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all, and the earth itself to no one.’

– Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of the Inequality Between Men (1755)


Manifesto of the Public Land Liberation Army

There is no such thing as private land. You may be fortunate enough to own the property on it, but the land it is built on is ours. We who live on the land are merely its custodians for future generations. If those who claim to own the land sold it to you, they did not have the right. We were not consulted. It was not theirs to sell. You have been deceived. The land is the result of hundreds of generations of labour, which was not undertaken for the profit and pleasure of a wealthy individual or elite. We do not acknowledge the laws passed by that elite to steal from us our collective inheritance of the land we were born on, which is that of the entire planet. All land is by definition public, and we are here to take it back. Help us to enforce this principle collectively by enacting your public Rights of Way over privately owned property – and soon, before they sell it all from under us.


Land Ownership and Class Division

Land is the first and fundamental form of property. The claims to its ownership began in the Neolithic with the raising of animals as livestock on a limited area of land, and above all with the cultivation of land for agriculture. Significantly, it was from the latter that the division of humans into classes began. Before that, one might own personal belongings and have, perhaps, a tribal leader who had a greater say on the disposal of the tribe’s collective resources, but the idea of owning the land from which the tribe took its food would have made no sense to the seasonal movements of hunters and gatherers. It was only when, in the decisive moment in the evolution of man, the hunt and the search for food was transformed into repeated labour on the land that ownership of that land became something to lay claim to and defend.

From this came the twin institutions of monuments and war, the architecture of warlords and the labourers that built and died for it. At which point there emerged a new kind of human activity. First, that in which, through laborious repetition, the present moment is deferred to the future in which those actions bear fruit; and second, in which the fruits of that activity are in excess of the needs of consumption. Only mass production of the means of subsistence by a labouring class could have sustained the enormous squandering of that surplus labour by a non-labouring class on a monument such as, for example, Stonehenge. What are monuments but, first and foremost, the declaration of the resources at the disposal of the non-labouring elite, whose ownership of the land and labour required to produce them they continue to signify down to the present day? Ownership of the land and the social division of peoples into classes emerged at the same time in prehistory, and their subsequent intertwining, which no social revolution has been able to unravel, has been the history of humankind.

Nothing, except in degree, has changed since. Walking through one of the most beautiful and gentle parts of England recently, what struck me most was how much land there still is, even in this so-called crowded little island, in the possession of a few very wealthy people. It is impossible to admire these immaculately tended lawns, these tastefully restored manors and well-maintained hedges, these lush green fields reserved for the horses of banker’s daughters, these bosky hills planted by generations of agricultural labourers under the custodianship of country gentlemen, without thinking of the battle for land that is driving the class war in London. The idea of the scarcity of land in a country that is, as we are constantly told by our state propaganda, ‘full’ is as ideological an image of England as the politics of austerity in a nation with the sixth strongest economy in the world.

As I walked through its open expanses, I imagined the children of families that have been driven out of their homes by multi-millionaires running free through these ancient woodlands, living in communities in the vast empty manors that were built in a time of such vastly unequal wealth and poverty that we deceive ourselves it lies in the distant past rather than in our immediate future. It is nothing less than an obscenity that the poorest and most vulnerable members of our class-driven society are being systematically reduced to even greater poverty, and deprived by law of the means to escape it, when lawns and fields and houses like this are the private property of a few. While this state of affairs exists, let no one speak to me of nationhood or democratic government, of common sense and equality under the law, of the dignity of man or capitalism as the best of all possible worlds. We are a pack of dogs fighting in the dirt for the bones from our master’s table, and until we learn to bite the hand that feeds us none of us deserves to be called civilised. The working class is revolutionary, or it is nothing.


On the Revolutionary Meaning of Hedgerows

They say that to estimate the age of a hedgerow, every different species of tree or shrub within a hundred foot stretch is equal to a century of years. In this hedgerow, which runs along the lane to Barnsgate Manor on the edge of Ashdown Forest, even with our urban eyes we managed to identify holly, ivy, oak, hazel, hawthorn, bramble, honeysuckle, bindweed and sticky weed, with, on the verge, cow parsley, stinging nettles, various grasses, buttercups and forget-me-nots.

I was trying to understand my attraction to hedgerows after we walked along this one. In terms of their use as a boundary marking out private property, whether between one farmer’s field and another or, just as commonly, between a banker’s rural idyll and the road, I hate them and all they stand for. They are a peculiarly English expression of the deeply ingrained notion that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. But beyond their utility, there is an older meaning, which is about the meeting between man and nature from which the British landscape emerged.

Like the dry-stone walls of northern England, the hedgerows of the south, a legacy of Anglo-Saxon husbandry, require considerable skill and knowledge to create. But unlike a wall, a hedge cannot be made in a few days, no matter how many hands are put, willingly or otherwise, to the task. The labourer who plants the hedge will never see its full glory; nor will his sons and daughters, or even theirs. The hedgerows of southern England are the work of hundreds of years. And although that continuity is a product of the ownership of the land that is passed down from father to son, and therefore as blatant an image of aristocratic privilege and working class bondage as the manor house, they are, too, a product that, almost uniquely in today’s world, cannot be made by machines in a day. The richest hedge fund manager, the most impatient landlord, cannot buy or make a hedgerow for the rural manor that is the sign of his entry into the landowning class, no matter how much he pays. As such, the hedgerow, in a dialectical reversal of its historical meaning, is today a symbol of resistance to the commodification of the land we stand on, the labour we are forced to live by, the world we are damned to live in. Burn down the manors, comrades! Cultivate the hedgerows!


The Norman Yoke

The elusive class distinction by which everyone is so eager to define themselves these days always makes me laugh, so let me clarify it here. If you’re one month’s cheque from being evicted from your home, whether on a salary or benefits, you’re working class; if you inherited a home, or the money to get a mortgage on one, you’re middle class. But in reality, if you belong to either class, you’re a peasant or the serf who works his farm.

Walking in one of the less visited parts of Ashdown Forest recently, through a jigsaw of fields whose boundaries were laid down by the Anglo-Saxons, we crossed the clearly marked path through the grounds of a manor house and saw, in a clump of trees in the next field, a temple. Some people think being rich means having your own yacht or plane or fleet of luxury cars to park on a double yellow line outside Harrods; and it’s true that the class of people that do – the bourgeoisie that owns the means of production in which you and I are expected to slave our lives away and be grateful for the opportunity – run this world. But the real wealth isn’t in money or how many ships you have moored in Monaco, it’s in land.

Just 0.3 per cent of our population – 160,000 families – own two thirds of the land in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, making us second only to Brazil as the country with the most unequal land distribution in the world. This is the real establishment, the people who own Britain: not tenants of a freehold on the property that’s built on it, but the trees, grass, mud and rocks, all the way down to the earth’s core and forever. It’s not for sale at any price, and you can be as rich as God and still not buy it, for the simple reason that it was never purchased in the first place. It was given, in return for political power and the lives of the men that died fighting for it, by kings.

Those who own it, who inherited it from their fathers and will bequeath it to their sons, are mostly Normans, or at least Anglo-Normans, descendants from the ninety or so families that tied their banners to William the Bastard’s mast and fought with him at Hastings, then administered the feudal system he introduced when they won. Half the country was placed in the hands of 190 men, a quarter in the hands of a mere 11 men. To their descendants – the Beauchamps, D’Arcys, FitzWilliams, Harcourts, Lyons, Mandevilles and Percys – our so-called Royal Family are arrivistes, nouveau riche foreigners who don’t know how to behave in public. The rest – the Arabs, the Russians, the Americans and the Chinese – keep them in tweeds and oil wells and armies, and in return they rent them a manor or three, toss them all the golf balls they can hit, and invite them round in the evening when the port’s being served to discuss what laws they want changed. But the land we live on, all 60 million of us, is theirs. And, barring a revolution, it always will be.


Whose Britain Is It, Anyway?

The BBC programme of this title, which set out to answer the question of who owns the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was first televised in 2006, and it feels its ten years out of date. Where Jon and Dan Snow talk about Madonna and Mohamed Al-Fayed encroaching on the Mayfair streets of the British establishment, now they would be talking about the Qatar, Kuwait and Hong Kong investment authorities buying up huge swathes of London property.

Besides now owning Al-Fayed’s Harrods, the Qatar Investment Authority, which holds over $170 billion of assets from the country’s oil and gas surpluses, also owns The Shard, Canary Wharf and the former Olympic Village in Stratford. Knight Dragon, the Hong Kong investment vehicle of billionaire Dr. Henry Cheng Kar-Shun, owns much of Greenwich Peninsula. While City Hall, the home of the Greater London Authority and its democratically-elected Mayor, today sits on the More London private estate, which is owned by the St. Martins Property Group, the investment company representing the real estate interests of the State of Kuwait. The fifth largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, the Kuwait Investment Authority has assets exceeding $592 billion. Among its extensive property holdings in London, the St. Martins Property Group also owns London Bridge City, 150 Cheapside, 1 Bunhill Row, 5 Canada Square, 60 Threadneedle Street, and the Willis Building at 51 Lime Street. Members of the London Assembly, our democratically elected representatives to the GLA, have been prevented from conducting television interviews outside City Hall by private security guards in the employ of St. Martins, who insist they need a special permit. And protesters, against their Right to Protest and Freedom of Assembly under article 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998, are prohibited from gathering there without prior corporate permission.

And yet, despite their best efforts, of which these are only some, to invest the profits of every stolen oil refinery, coal mine and steelworks in London real estate and land, the Arabs, Chinese, Russians and Americans have not made any significant inroads into the tens of thousands of acres and billions of pounds of land owned by the the Duke of Buccleuch (250,000 acres), the Duke of Northumberland (135,000 acres), the Duke of Westminster (133,000 acres), the Earl of Lonsdale (70,000 acres), and, of course, the Dukes of Cornwall (135,000 acres) and Lancaster (45,500 acres) – better known as the Prince of Wales and his mum, who also owns the estates of Balmoral (50,000 acres) and Sandringham (20,000 acres).

An alien visitor to this country who was shown the political and legal justifications for the distribution of its land would conclude that the inhabitants of these isles are mad, or stupid, or so lacking in human dignity that we deserve to be the landless serfs we are – and they would be right. Everyone in my family as far back as Caratacus’s favourite goat herder slaved their entire lives away in a field, down a mine or on a factory line to pay the rent on the land they lived, worked and died on. The descendants of murderers and thieves who still own that land, whose ancestors were given it by William the Conqueror, Henry VIII or some other autocrat in return for power, or who simply stole 7 million acres of it during the land enclosures of the 18-19th Century, will never be compelled to give it up under the existing legal and political system. It is in the face of this enforced expropriation of our putative birthright from 90 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that the revisionism of parliamentary politics is most clearly revealed as the ineffective irrelevance it is. Political and social revolution is the only means to undo the obscene injustice under which our ancestors have lived as far back as history records, and what descendants we might have will continue to live under until we, as a class, do something to change it.


Rights of Way

§41. These provisions establish a power to direct people away from an area where they are engaged in, or are likely to be engaged in, anti-social behaviour. This is a power for constables and Police Community Support Officers to issue a dispersal direction to any person aged 10 and over to leave a specific area and not return for up to 48 hours. The use of this power must be authorised by a police officer of at least the rank of inspector. Knowingly breaching the direction is a criminal offence. There is also a power to require property that has been used (or is likely to be used) in the anti-social behaviour to be surrendered. 

§42. The test that needs to be met is that the constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the person’s behaviour in the area is contributing to anti-social behaviour (which is behaviour that causes harassment, alarm or distress) or crime or disorder in the area, or is likely to contribute to anti-social behaviour or crime or disorder in the area; and that the direction is necessary for the purposes of reducing the likelihood of the occurrence of anti-social behaviour or crime or disorder in the area.

– Home Office Memorandum on issues arising under the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill (18 October, 2013)

With increasing frequency, and particularly in London, we are told by the security guards employed by the private companies that own the ground we’re walking on that this isn’t a public way, that we can’t ride a bike or skateboard here, that we can’t sit, eat or loiter here, that we can’t protest or demonstrate here, that we can’t use a megaphone, play music or speak loudly here, that we can’t lie down, rest or sleep here – all of which is justified with the information (which they proudly announce as if it were unanswerable) that this is ‘private land’. But in fact, all land in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is privately owned land: it’s owned by the Crown, then leased to the Government, the Church of England, Oxford, Cambridge and Eton, the Ministry of Defence, the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the degenerate offspring of a few hundred Norman lords, and several thousand privately-owned corporations. There is no such thing as publically owned land, which in itself is a misnomer. Common land, another misunderstood term, refers to the rights of common over land adjacent to that leased by commoners. We own none of it. We are subjects of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and since her ancestor, William the Conqueror, turned us into a feudal society, we don’t own a square foot of the land we walk, live and die on.

What we do have – for the present – are public Rights of Way over that land, irrespective of who owns it. The security guards that are increasingly dressed to resemble a cop – and who think, because they do, that the private company logo on their shoulder gives them the right to overrule those rights – are speaking crap; and every time you obey their instructions you are relinquishing those rights to the practice and precedence it sets. Those rights, like all rights, aren’t written in stone, as liberals like to think, but penciled-in negotiations within an ever-changing law. The regularly heard claim that ‘Housing is a human right!’ is perhaps the most dangerous misunderstanding of the legal and political systems under which we live. Under the Human Rights Act of 1998 there is, as you would expect of laws drawn up to defend private property: the right of respect for your private home (article 8), and the right to peaceful enjoyment of your property (protocol 1). But housing is not a human right in the sixth richest country in the world; and while we might claim that it should be, to do so outside a programme that seeks to overthrow the capitalist basis of our legal rights is meaningless. A quick look around our streets, in any case, should relieve the liberals who like to repeat this chant of their illusions.

What we should have no illusions about, however, is that following the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, Her Majesty’s Government has increasingly sought to use those new powers to control what the subjects of Her Majesty can do on Her land – for instance, by issuing dispersal orders to protesting crowds followed by curfews against their return; or public space protection orders that criminalise the homeless or anyone else the police or local council doesn’t like the look of. Despite its failings to house us, the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic British law, is the only legal obstacle to the ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ (to use the phrase coined by the US military) the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland exercises over the land, space and time of its subjects, which is why our new Prime Minister of that Government, Theresa May, is so keen to replace it with a British Bill of Rights. So the next time you see a sign prohibiting your public Right of Way over privately owned land, be aware of what your choice to obey it means and will mean for all of us in the future.

There is no neutral space in which to hide anymore, not inside your heads, not inside your homes. The class war is marching down your street, through your front door, along your hallway and into your bedrooms. Will you do what you’re told, pull down your shutters, ‘keep calm and carry on’ – as the ubiquitous signs tell us – and by your obedience collaborate in the social cleansing of London? Or will you pick up a weapon and fight back?

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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