Going, going, gone… the great sell-off of Britain’s public land

The New Enclosure: the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain

Brett Christophers, Verso 2018, hbk 362pp, £20

Since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, almost 10% of the entire land mass of Britain has been transferred from public to private ownership. It has been the biggest privatisation in British history, swallowing up hospitals, airbases, forests, playing fields, leisure centres and town halls, as well as entire council housing estates.

This two-million hectare fire sale, valued at £400bn, is the starting point for Brett Christophers’ excellent book. He not only chronicles the onslaught on public ownership of any kind over the past 40 years, but also explodes the myths surrounding the supposed ‘benefits’ of privatisation, including the delivery of housing. Instead, he shows, reaching back to the enclosures of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, private ownership and profiteering from land have been key to the rise of British capitalism and the dispossession of the working class.

The great public carve-up

What Christophers calls the onset of neoliberalism needs to be understood as the response of the ruling class to the re-emergence of crisis conditions for British capitalism towards the end of the 1960s. It followed the unprecedented boom of the post-war years in which the state – which had never before been a significant landholder – was able to develop the large swathes of land it had initially acquired for defence and to safeguard vital resources for housing, health care and other social benefits.

By the time of the Second World War, the state owned about 14% of British land. As coal and other industries were then also brought under public ownership by the Labour government of 1946-51, so too was the land they occupied. Up to the early 1980s, the state was the chief landowner of much of Britain’s urban spaces.

By 1979, 20% of all land was held by the public sector: about half by central government, (mainly the NHS, Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission); 8% by local authorities and 2% by nationalised industries. 42% of the population lived in council homes. One of the first priorities of the Thatcher government was to demand the identification of ‘surplus’ publicly-owned land, ‘to be offered for sale immediately’ to the private sector.

Thus the ‘estate’ of the NHS – estimated at around 50,000 hectares in 1982 – has shrunk by over 70% to 6,500 hectares today. The 1983 Davies report argued that ‘valuable resources were being wasted’ and demanded that ‘health authorities identify underused and surplus land and property and where appropriate dispose of it’. That language is echoed in the 2017 Naylor review – advised by the global consultancy Deloitte – which assessed the market value of NHS property at up to £17bn and argued that at least a third should be sold. The Independent (10 August 2017) subsequently reported the Department of Health had ‘quietly doubled the amount of land it intended to dispose of’, much of which was currently in use ‘for clinical or medical purposes’.

Local authority land has been similarly plundered. The ravages of Right to Buy are well known, but other areas have been sliced away. This includes more than 10,000 school playing fields. Last year the charity Locality found that councils across Britain were selling off public amenities at a rate of about 4,000 a year.

In addition, the major privatisation programme of the 1980s saw more public land lost, including water (170,000 hectares), National Coal (100,000 hectares) and British Rail (70,000 hectares). Although parts of the railway were renationalised as Network Rail, 5,500 premises are being sold off again, with private equity firms driving the bidding for a million hectares of prime urban land.

Christophers makes the point that once the land is sold it will only be used to meet community needs if a profit can be made. So free local parks disappear along with affordable housing, state school playing fields, allotments and provision for long term residential care, to be replaced with things that pay – ‘luxury’ housing developments, car parks, wildlife ‘experiences’ and shopping centres.

Market myth-busting

In 2014, global estate agent Savills reckoned there was sufficient ‘surplus’ public land on ‘many prime developable locations’ to deliver two million homes, arguing that it was selfish for local authorities to hang on to ‘much of the most valuable land in the world’ in the midst of a housing crisis. The reality is that privately-acquired land is left unused at three times the rate of that in the public sector in order to keep house prices artificially high.

There is no shortage of land – just 6.8% of the UK is built on. Nor – despite the myths – is there a problem with planning permission, with local authorities falling over themselves to provide it. The four biggest housebuilders – Barratt, Taylor Wimpey, Persimmon and Berkeley – own enough land with planning permission for 450,000 homes which they are simply not building. The average gap between the granting of planning permission and build completion in London is 15 years. Housebuilders are deliberately allowing only a trickle of new homes onto the market. Persimmon’s profits last year surpassed £1bn – the highest ever for a UK housebuilder. For every home sold, it made a profit of £66,265.

Land banks have doubled in the last ten years. In 2012, nearly half of unimplemented residential planning permissions were in the hands of ‘non builders’ such as investment companies. Government officials admitted, when asked why until 2016 they had no record of the number of homes built on privatised land: ‘the target was not to build homes; it was to release land.’ Meanwhile, there are 1.1 million people on council waiting lists. There is nothing ‘efficient’ or ‘beneficial’ in this system for the working class.

Nonetheless, the unrelenting pressure on local authorities to sell land continues. The concept of ‘surplus’ land, now often referred to as ‘brownfield land’, is another pernicious myth. The conflation of ‘brownfield land’ with council housing estates was first made by Labour Lord Adonis in 2015 but has become a common trope. It is a deliberate cover-up for the fact that much of this land, far from being ‘unused’, lies under the homes of hundreds of thousands of working class people. Savills – a key player in the carve-up of public sector land – has argued that ‘underperforming, undesirable and low value locations’ should be transformed into ‘actively sought-after, high performing and higher value real estate’. This is code for the privatisation and ‘regeneration’ of council homes.

Public land is deliberately sold below its market value. In addition, since 2009, local government has absorbed all upfront costs; in south London, Southwark Labour council handed over the 23-acre site of the Heygate estate, home to 3,000 people, for just £50m. It then bore the entire costs of decanting its residents at a cost of £44m. In 2013, Royal Mail was valued at £3.3bn but largely sold off for £193m, including prime land in central London.

Landownership and finance capital

Behind these apparent contradictions, Christophers notes, lie the prime importance of private land ownership to capitalism itself: ‘Land ownership is highly material to capitalist social and economic development’ as a source of both material wealth and political power. He argues that it was the early enclosure acts of the 17th and 18th centuries, driven by the rise of a merchant class, that enabled Britain’s predominance as a world economic power. ‘Enclosure’ essentially meant turfing people off their means of subsistence on fields, woodland and scrub – ‘the “commons” that working class people historically had access to to help reproduce themselves and their families – leaving them with only the ability to sell their labour to sustain themselves’, and so forcing them into the factories of the newly industrialising cities. The language used at the time to describe the commons – ‘sterile’, ‘unimproved’, ‘wasteland’ – are echoed by terms like ‘idle’, ‘surplus’ and ‘brownfield’ today: the same semantic trick to hide the fact that the lives and homes of the working class are being destroyed. By the end of the 19th century some 14m acres had been enclosed, representing 60% of all agricultural land and around 40% of the English land mass. Land became concentrated in a small number of private hands. By 1883 just 4,000 families owned over half the country. It was representatives from these families who stood for parliament to make laws, appointed magistrates to enforce them and raised troops to put down those who opposed them. Land was the key to political power and social influence. Meanwhile, 95% of the population owned nothing at all.

Land was also key to an apparently inexhaustible source of ‘unearned’ wealth. Adam Smith railed against it in The Wealth of Nations. John Stuart Mill complained of landowners growing ‘richer, as it were, in their sleep, without working, risking or economising’. The value of land rose as transport, street lighting, retail and so on made it more desirable ‘while the landlord sits still’. For Karl Marx the existence of a large landowning class was a relic of the past – a ‘useless superfetation in the industrial world’ – forcing capitalists to share surplus value in the form of rent. He thought that a ‘pure’ capitalism would have nationalised land. But, as he realised, capitalism instead absorbed private land ownership: ‘the bourgeois has himself become an owner of land’ leading to ‘the abolition of the distinction between capitalist and landowner’. By 1844, Marx could write ‘Large landed property, as we see in England, has already cast off its feudal character and adopted an industrial character insofar as it is aiming to make as much money as possible’.

This merger between finance capital and land ownership has been at the core of British capitalism ever since. By the end the 18th century, land was already seen as the ideal vehicle for the storage and redistribution of surplus value. It remains the preferred form of collateral for banks. As we show in our pamphlet Whose land is it anyway?, this is particularly so in times of capitalist crisis. By 1978, ‘financial landownership’ was prevalent. For insurance companies, pension funds and banks, ‘the predominant interest of financial landownership was typically in the value of land as a capital asset’. Christophers identifies speculation as one of the most notable current features of land investment. It is this speculation that largely lies behind the scandal of empty homes across Britain, now at 216,186, up 5.3% on last year. In London, the figure is up 11%, representing £10.7bn worth of property.

All this has been a bonanza for the capitalist class. In 2017, land, valued at £5 trillion, accounted for over half of UK net worth, with buildings making up a further £3.5 trillion. By 2018, 23 out of the 100 richest people in Britain could list property as a major source of their wealth. The top 100 companies that own land in London are headed by Canary Wharf Group Investment holdings (50% owned by the Qatari Investment Group) and include British Land Company, Aviva, BNP Paribas and Legal and General. On a national level, the old aristocratic families still dominate, alongside private water companies, mining groups and the four big housebuilders.

This system of profiteering from what should be a common good is driving the housing crisis as rents soar. Christophers appears flummoxed by the lack of any movement to oppose this pillage of the public estate but is clear that none of the political parties have the answer. While he concurs with Marx that the nationalisation of land is not in itself a revolutionary demand, he suggests it could be a good place to start. ‘Its primary effect will be not to end the struggle over land-related issues but to change the conditions of that struggle’. However, he writes in relation to nationalisation, ‘that ship has surely sailed, barring a revolutionary political economic transformation [our emphasis]’. His conclusion must be our starting point – a recognition that it will take a revolutionary struggle against capitalism to resolve the issue of land, housing and public space in the interests of the working class.

Cat Wiener

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 269 April/May 2019


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