‘Land for the Many’ is a paper written by George Monbiot and others for the Labour Party. It offers a clear and informative analysis of the issues relating to land ownership and use. For example, it is simplistic to suggest that house prices are high because not enough new homes are being built to match the demand. Many are built to suit the developer rather than the occupier and are the wrong size in the wrong place. Local authorities have been blamed for lack of adequate planning approvals but they claim that the fault lies with the developers who are not building the homes quickly enough. In many cases this relates back to the planning consent. A developer agrees to certain conditions in order to gain consent and then argues that the conditions are unreasonable, for example that the proportion of the new homes for social housing makes the whole project unviable.
When it comes to recommendations, the underlying Marxist ideology starts to show through. There is disapproval of national developers and house builders who are primarily interested in profit and dividends for their shareholders rather than the needs of local communities. They have too much power in a planning system that largely relies on developers putting forward applications, especially where they have more financial clout than local authorities impoverished by years of austerity. They should be side-lined as local authorities and communities take the lead in deciding what should be built where according to local need, using compulsory purchase powers to buy land at the existing use market rate, i.e. agricultural value for greenfield sites. Private ownership of housing for rent should be discouraged by regulation and taxation.
The other group picked out for disapprobation are wealthy owners of farmland, especially those who invest in the land for the tax benefits. The emphasis on allotments and smallholdings is evidence of a bucolic vision where citizens are in contact with the land growing their own food. To facilitate this, local authorities should approve planning applications for ‘new land worker dwellings on low impact farming operations’. Agricultural ties on houses should be protected despite the fact that there are almost certainly more houses on farms with agricultural occupancy conditions than there are people qualified to live in them.
The fact that public access and ownership of land is advocated is not surprising as the main author, George Monbiot, founded the Land Is Ours campaign in 1995. A Right to Roam over all uncultivated land with limited exceptions is unrealistic in England with its density of population. For example, free access to waterside to those on foot and to the water itself for those in a canoe will destroy fisheries, the management of which has led to many of our rivers being designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
It is also proposed that land could be bought by Community Land Trusts using compulsory powers where necessary for farming, forestry, recreational enjoyment, nature conservation and rewilding using money from the Community Land Fund. An example given in the paper is of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire which has become increasingly prone to flooding. Local residents suspect that the reason for this is the management of a grouse moor upstream, in particular the rotational burning of the heather to ensure better habitat for wildlife, including grouse. Under the Community Right to Buy, local residents could purchase the moorland with money from the Community Land Trust using compulsory powers. It could then be planted with trees or rewilded in a mistaken attempt to reduce the flooding.
It is remarkable that a paper on land should be dominated by the provision of housing and consideration of urban and suburban land. Of the nine chapters, there is one dedicated to farmland and forestry and another on common land and public access, a total of ten pages out of seventy one! I suspect that this is because the authors have limited understanding of farming and rural land use for which there is evidence in this paper.
For example, there is a determination to prevent the investment in farmland purely for the tax benefits but recognition that genuine farmers need relief from Inheritance Tax, for example, if the land is not to be sold every time a death occurs. Indeed, the proposal to replace Inheritance Tax with a Lifetime Gifts Tax with a nil rate band of only £125,000 is extreme and poorly thought through. Equally, the idea that farming decisions should be subject to planning consent is ideological rather than practical.
Apart from the aspiration to stop large-scale landowners benefiting from direct EU payments under the CAP, there is nothing on future agricultural and countryside policy to replace the CAP. Considering that 70% of land in this country is farmed, that is an extraordinary omission. In terms of farmland, this paper concentrates almost entirely on ownership rather than how the land is used. I suspect that the general public is far more interested in the latter than the former.
The lack of understanding of rural issues is presumably behind the proposal to create an English Land Commission that would be tasked with bringing forward recommendations on many issues such as the taxation of farmland and reform of tenancy law. Those of us with an intimate knowledge and understanding of the use of rural land must point out the deficiencies of this paper and try to prevent the more extreme aspects becoming official Labour Party policy.