By Nick Hayes
The historic root of inequality in Britain is the uneven distribution of land, the rights given to those who own it, and the rights taken from those who don’t.
Across the country, a network of fence-lines and walls, modern and old, divide up the land into parcels of ownership. These barriers do more than just exclude us, they turn our common wealth into private wealth and reinforce a status quo of inequality that has existed since the Norman Conquest.
In 1066, William the Conqueror seized all the land in his name – disinheriting most of this island’s inhabitants, and removing common rights to great swathes of land so the King and his Barons could hunt deer. In late medieval times, land was fenced-off for sheep by the landed gentry so they could maximise their profits from the booming wool trade. The onset of capitalism in the late 1600s saw the mass enclosure of common land for the ruling class, justified by an early incarnation of the mantra of ‘trickle-down economics’, an enduring myth which states that privately accumulated wealth will ultimately benefit all parts of society. It didn’t then and it hasn’t now.
Today, a tiny number of people and institutions still own most of the land in Britain, with the country’s twenty-four Dukes owning over a million acres between them. Much land is now also divided up amongst a new global elite via off-shore companies, often used for tax evasion or international money laundering. This gives them great power over land use, where they prioritise profit and status over the environment and local communities. Currently, the richest man in parliament, Richard Benyon, is digging up shale from the common ground that his ancestors enclosed 200 years previously. Over the next ten years he will mine 350 acres of two million tonnes of sand and gravel, employing the same rights to the land as the commoners held for centuries, but on an industrial scale, and for his profit only.
Look into land, hop over the walls and fences that divide us from it, and you find not just the roots of economic inequality, but of gender, race, and class. When slavery was abolished in 1833, £20m of taxpayers’ money was paid to the slavers in compensation for the ‘property’ that was being confiscated. This money went into building new estates and remodelling old, throwing up new walls around English land, and allowing the inhumane mindset of slave capitalism into the seats of government. Women were only allowed to own property from 1884 because, for most of history, under the legal fiction of feme couvert, they themselves were classed as property. And as for class, look behind the velvet drapes and ermine fancy dress of the aristocracy and you find nothing more than basic rentier capitalism: land enclosed, resources privatised and then sold back as privileges to those that can afford them.
Many public health issues are directly linked to trends in land use. Crammed into polluted cities, many people have seen their respiratory health affected, and their mental wellbeing collapse by lack of contact with nature. Cash-strapped councils have started to sell-off public parks and playing-fields to plug funding gaps, whilst Tate and Lyle Sugar regularly top the list of farm subsidy recipients. How can we tackle obesity and other health issues whilst our food system is geared to producing low quality, cheap food, and people are disconnected from the outdoors?
Common land, land owned communally, shared resources, have all but died in the modern day. But ‘the commons’ is as much a philosophy as it is a space. It rejects a top-down hierarchical power distribution in favour of horizontal network of listening and sharing, consensus decision-making. When you create boundaries to shared resources, you create matrices that marginalise certain people, entirely at the whim, or ideology, of the property owner. But when you stand on common ground, the dynamic that pushes certain sectors of society to the margins is almost entirely obliterated. Philosophers from Foucault to Henri Lefebvre to Edward Soja have all studied how space is constructed and the impact that has on how society is structured. The latter two talk of a notion called ‘Thirdspace’, a place where the designed architecture of environment meets the stories we tell about its use. Such a hypothetical space, they argue, could become a place of resistance against the systemic power that continues to divide our society, a place where all sectors of society stand as equals – in other words, on common ground.
The Land Justice Network was set up several years ago as a coalition of growers, city planners, data modellers, academics, architects, activists, artists and song-writers who are working together to change the way England uses its land. It aims to put land where it belongs: at the heart of political debate and discussion. We’re advocating radical changes in the way land in the UK is used and governed to create a system of land-use that benefits us all. Liberate the land and you liberate the people.
The map that illustrates this article is our vision of the land we are working for. It forms part of a pamphlet we have produced that sets out each theme in its context, a brief introduction to how and why this will lead to greater equality. Sign up to our website, and get as many of those pamphlets as you want, for free (or a voluntary donation towards print costs).
We have spent the last year or so building solidarity, extending the network, and drawing up our shared ideology. We are now turning to outward action. In early May we planned our first major occupation of land, targeted against the grouse moors of England, where the farming techniques have been shown to cause flooding in local towns. We want to highlight not just this particular injustice, but to bring to the forefront the idea that communities should have a greater say in how, and for whom, the land is managed. We want you to join us, to sign up to our website, to come to our occupations, and to spread the idea that there is an alternative.
Nick Hayes is a writer and illustrator, who campaigns with Land Justice Network.
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