1980s >> 1982 >> no-930-february-1982

How the Land Lies

Modern society is sometimes praised as a “property-owning democracy” in which with one or two rare exceptions (like Our Royal Highnesses) everybody starts life on an equal footing and our acquisition of property will depend on what we desire, the extent of our drive and initiative, and generally on what we deserve. Under capitalism, it is argued, if we reduce state interference to a minimum, everybody will be free to acquire what he or she wants. How far is this notion of the democracy of private property borne out by the facts?

There are 41,879,000 acres of land in Britain but to know exactly who owns what is difficult. The most recent comprehensive investigation into land ownership was the New Domesday Survey of 1873 which was intended to demonstrate that land had become more fairly distributed since the first Domesday Survey in 1086; but the result was to prove the very opposite. Since then there has been a certain reluctance on the part of British landowners to disclose details of their holdings. For example, in 1976 the Country Landowners Association attributed their reticence to the “practical difficulties” involved in finding out what they own. But then members of the aristocracy never were able to cope with the “practical difficulties” of life.

However, the available information demonstrates that the ownership of land and property is in the hands of a very small minority. The reports of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth (1975-80) show, for example, that the wealthiest 8 percent of the adult population own 91 per cent of the land. Some of these wealthy landowners are aristocrats—you may find the Duke of Buccleuch wandering about his modest 268,000 acres of green and pleasant land, or you might see the Countess of Sutherland on her motorised lawnmower gliding over her 150,000 acres. Such ownership, which cannot even pretend to be based on merit, is defended by the nobles and their sycophants as being the birthright of the golden caste. Much property is also owned by members of the ruling class who have made their fortunes from wealth created by the working class in industry. The late Charles Clore is an example. Among his knick-knacks were the British Shoe Corporation, William Hill the bookies, Selfridges, Mappin and Webb, Garrards the royal jewellers and countless properties. Clore’s main interest was in property development which he began in the 1930s and eventually went on to “build” the Hilton Hotel—although, strangely, neither bricklaying nor architectural design seem to have featured in his talents. Clore was a frank man, and when asked whether he liked art, replied “No, I like blocks of flats”.

Financial institutions—particularly insurance companies and pension funds—have also become major landowners during the last twenty-five years. Land is a sound investment, especially during periods of high inflation, and now nearly 20 per cent of the assets of these institutions are invested in property.

It is sometimes argued that the enormous wealth of pension funds, including a good deal of property, denotes a significant shift of riches to ordinary working people. Apart from the fact that what each worker contributes to the fund only really amounts to unpaid wages, it is not the case that the fortunes of the funds are the property of the workers to be enjoyed in the same way as a capitalist would benefit from his share portfolio. A miner, working hard and living in poverty does not have fewer daily difficulties because the National Coal Board owns, for instance, a 50 per cent interest in the Watergate building in Washington.

So, on the one hand there is a small minority who, between them, own most of the land. On the other hand there are those of us — the overwhelming majority — who own about as much of Britain as we can fit into our pockets. Margaret Thatcher is very fond of quoting the high proportion of residents in Britain who are “owner-occupiers”, and some people are always eager to tell you how secure their lives are, or how proud they are to be a “capitalist”, because they own their own homes. As a matter of fact, not only do most people not own their homes, but most who believe they are owners, are not. Most people who boast about their home ownership make lifelong regular payments to mortgage companies, building societies or banks to pay for their accommodation and are really in a very similar position to rent payers. According to the 1981 report Judicial Statistics (issued by the Lord Chancellor’s Office) 27,000 people lost their homes during that year when they fell behind with their mortgage payments and had their homes re-possessed through the courts.

 
Under the present social arrangements having a roof over your head depends not on need but on how much you can afford. So, to take one example, while more than twenty couples recently camped out in front of Waverley District Council’s offices in Surrey hoping to be “lucky” enough to buy cheap homes at bargain prices of £20,000 (Guardian, 7/12/81), the spacious and luxurious Heveningham Hall in Suffolk discreetly changed hands for £726,000 (Guardian, 8/1/82). Over the years there have been various suggestions about how to solve the housing problem, some less serious than others. Lady Spencer of Althorp, for instance, thinks that stately homes are an anachronism. “Of course they are. Who needs 100 rooms today? They are abnormal, and my husband and I have always thought the answer is to add a little normality”. This normality consists of throwing their place open for business occasions, conferences and to tourists. Perhaps we should all take another look at our living rooms, give them a once-over with a duster and telephone the CBI to see if they’ve already made arrangements for their next annual conference. Then there are the more serious reform proposals.
 
Given the chance to form the next government, would the Labour Party or the SDP-Liberal Connivance solve the housing problem? Local authorities estimated last year that there were 547,000 unfit homes in England alone, plus 1,035,000 homes lacking one or more of the basic amenities. Des Wilson, the first director of Shelter, the national campaign for the homeless, recently said:

The desperate truth now is that those of us who spoke out about the scandal of Britain’s housing problem in 1966, when Shelter was launched, find ourselves back at square one. All the signs are that this year fewer houses will be started than at any time during the last fifty years.

The well-intentioned people in Shelter are fighting a losing battle; for as long as houses are built not for people to live in but for sale or rent, then there will be a mismatch between what we want and what we get. Listening to the renewed pledges and promises from Labour politicians to “provide adequate housing for everyone” and deciding to give them one more chance will not solve anything. Under the last Labour government the rich got richer; the dole queues got longer; the high-rise hell-holes erected as Labour’s answer to inner-city slums in the 1960s began to crumble; the number of homeless grew and the number of houses being built fell.
 
Labour, like the SDP and the Liberals, asks for your trust in its ability to solve problems by making a good job of governing capitalism. What actually happens is that capitalism always makes a good job of governing whichever party is in “power”. The forces of the market, as the profit-system convulses its chaotic way through boom and slump, glut and dearth, are more powerful than a hot kitchen-full of politicians. The present social system entails the minority ownership (by individuals or states) of the land and the means of life, while the propertyless majority are exploited to create profits for the wealthy.
 
This system spreads across the world. In a television documentary last year it was estimated that from a world population of about 4,000,000,000, approximately 3 per cent own about 80 per cent of the planet (Global Report, 1981, BBC, 30/12/81). Private property society is not the only way that people can live and there is no reason to suppose that the social organisation into which we were born is the one which will endure indefinitely. In fact, the one thing of which we can be certain is that there will be change; but the kind of changed society which will exist tomorrow will depend on action today.
Gary Jay

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