Guy Shrubsole: Who Owns England?


A study into the secretive, yet incredibly lucrative, world of land ownership in England


Architecture and land are inseparable. Architecture occupies land, it is made from the land, and its waste products adversely affect it. How land is used, its value to society, and its ownership are therefore vital issues for architects to contemplate and discuss.

Who Owns England?, by Guy Shrubsole, London, Williams Collins, 2019

Who Owns England? by Guy Shrubsole advocates that land should form a more central role in societal, cultural and political debate. This is primarily because land underpins so much of our society. In Shrubsole’s words, ‘We need land to grow our food, build our homes and provide space for the ecosystems that clean our air and provide us with fresh water’.

The purpose of the book lies in highlighting the unequal distribution of land ownership in England, and how secretive this ownership is. Just 25,000 landowners own half of England. This is significant because landowners have control over, but limited responsibility for, their land. This is in spite of its far-reaching consequences for the wider public, particularly at a time of climate change and ecological destruction.

Without knowing who owns land it is difficult to assign responsibility for it. Wealth and power are occluded. Who Owns England? makes it clear that the current issues with land ownership are systemic and result from a long history of unjust land use and distribution. This history begins with three key bodies: the Crown, the Church and the aristocracy.

The Crown remains a significant landowner, through the Crown Estate and the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. While the Crown Estate is now run as a commercial property enterprise that feeds into the public purse, the same cannot be said for the Duchies. There is little transparency and accountability regarding the land they own, its use and profitability. Historically, the Crown also played a role in the enclosure of common land, an injustice to the public that has never been redressed.

Like the Crown, the Church of England has seen a significant reduction in the amount of land it owns. Selling its land into private hands has had far-reaching consequences. Short-term profits are gained, but any sustainable income or future increases in value are lost. An organisation that should be philanthropic with its assets, instead sells them to developers and property managers who are mandated to maximise profits for their shareholders, typically by increasing rents for tenants. This story has been mirrored in the public sector over the last fifty years.

One act, nearly one thousand years ago, still has repercussions for land ownership today. William the Conqueror bestowed land upon his friends and allies. The aristocracy was born. Male primogeniture, the automatic inheritance by the eldest male child, has meant that large estates have remained concentrated in few hands. These estates have benefited disproportionately from increases in land value, particularly in cities, that they contributed little towards. While the aristocracy claim a role of land stewardship, they have little legal obligation to act ethically or responsibly, especially when tenancies and mineral rights are so profitable. Titles also come with influence. The House of Lords has many significant and defensive landowners in the aristocracy with political influence and vested interests.

Today, land is more likely to be owned by the newly rich and large corporations. This has resulted in land issues that are more commonly debated: empty homes, property solely as investment, money laundering, land banking and the lobbying of government by large developers. Land ownership provides wealth, power and influence that skews notionally democratic processes like the planning system.

Who Owns England? also explores the history of successful and unsuccessful land reform. In the 19th century, the Chartists attempted to enfranchise voters by purchasing land through an early form of crowdfunding. Allotments, council smallholdings, conservation designations, and the Town and Country Planning Act are also discussed to provide inspiration for a new debate about land. The introduction of a planning system was instrumental in introducing some level of constraint and responsibility for how land is used. It also meant the public received some benefit from development through devices such as Section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy. However, more radical ideas such as a 20 per cent tax on the uplift in land value through development have been largely forgotten.

In concluding the book, Guy Shrubsole lays the groundwork for a discussion about land by proposing targets for land reform. These fall under three themes. First, to prevent land being used solely as a financial asset. This is achieved by ending the secrecy of land ownership, preventing land banking and empty homes, preventing tax avoidance through land, and ending sale of public sector land and property for short-term gain. Second, to mandate improved use of land through incentivised farming in harmony with nature, and by banning ecologically damaging land practices such as grouse moors. Finally, by ensuring public accessibility to land, through expanded ‘Right to Roam’ and community Right to Buy schemes. Above all of these proposals sits the need for a new attitude, a new culture, a new land ethic: that land ownership comes with responsibilities as well as rights.

What role could architecture play in a public debate about land ownership? Even if the landowner is not acting as an architect’s client, they remain a significant stakeholder. Architects play a key role in increasing tenancy yields and land values. Even if Guy Shrubsole’s proposed reform does not resonate personally, the role for architecture in this debate is without question. Who Owns England? is a helpful first step to prepare for that conversation.

Further references:
Land for the Many – independent report commissioned by the Labour Party

Book digests

As the world gets more complex, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with even the most essential reading. This is particularly so for architects because so many fields of learning impact upon its creation, interpretation and assessment.

To accumulate into a useful archive, each issue of Citizen includes digests of writings readers deem particularly useful or revelatory. Because the best writing tends to be of long-term value, digests are not restricted to those of recently published material. And the selection is largely left to readers to reflect the diversity of architects’ interests and inspirations.

Readers willing to contribute to this ongoing series are encouraged to first contact the editors proposing a book or article they consider particularly appropriate.

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