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.
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.