This Land Is Their Land

Brett Christophers: The New Enclosure: the Appropriation of Public Land In Neoliberal Britain. Verso £11.99.

The original enclosures took place in England from around the sixteenth century and led to much agricultural land coming under the exclusive control of large landowners. Here Brett Christophers examines a process in some ways comparable, which has essentially happened since Thatcher came to power in 1979: public land (a terminology we will return to below) has been sold to private companies. This has resulted in remarkably little protest or press coverage, perhaps in part because it has been carried out piecemeal, unlike big privatisations such as British Gas or the railways.

It is difficult to be absolutely certain, given the poor quality of record-keeping, but perhaps as much as £400bn worth of land has been privatised. Most of this (roughly a million hectares) has been land owned by local government, such as council estates and school playing-fields. This constitutes around 60 percent of land owned by local authorities, about twice the proportion of central government land that has been sold; this latter includes land belonging to the NHS, the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence.

The sell-offs provided funds for government coffers, of course, but privatisation was also justified on the basis that there was lots of supposedly surplus land in the hands of both local and central government. Selling this would make it available for private developers to build homes, offices and so on. But what counted as surplus was never properly defined, and the proportion of vacant land was probably even greater in the private sector. House-building corporations own plenty of developable land, but it is not always profitable for them to build on it. One survey of a hundred sites that had been sold found that just two per cent of the homes planned to be built there had actually been completed. Instead, the companies go in for land-banking, hoarding land so as to keep house prices high.

Christophers provides a very thorough analysis of the history, motivations and consequences of land privatisation. He is aware that the concept of public land needs clarifying, and he defines it as ‘land owned by public bodies’. It is not the same as common land, which implies right of public access and use, whoever owns it, and still forms about five per cent of the British land mass. But public land is emphatically not the people’s land, any more than the National Coal Board or British Gas were owned by the people.

There are relatively few reformist proposals about land. The Labour Party manifesto for last year’s election made no reference to land nationalisation, and only said it would review the possibility of a land value tax. Christophers ends by supporting the idea of community land trusts, involving community ownership on a non-profit basis, though these can still involve the private sector. Instead, the earth should be, as Gerrard Winstanley argued, ‘a common treasury for all’.


Business myths

The Mythology of Business. David Whyte. IER in association with CLASS.

This short 40-page pamphlet, aimed at activist trade unionists, sets out to deal with some of the arguments put forward by pro-business lobbies and economists for allowing private enterprises as much freedom as possible to pursue their profit-making as they think fit. Arguments such as the laughable ‘trickle down’ theory, that red tape hinders business activity, and that health and safety legislation has gone mad, are discussed and the facts presented.

The best part deals with the claim that ‘businesses can be trusted to be responsible’ where Whyte makes the point that the directors of a company have a legal obligation to the shareholders who own it. So ‘even if Directors would rather be responsible, they are bound by law to pursue the success of the company and its members’. In any event, whatever the law says, ‘the narrowly competitive and profit-oriented nature of business organisations means they can never prioritise broader social goals.’

Where the pamphlet falls down is in the conclusion that politicians do not have to ‘put the interest of business first’ but that they can choose to pursue policies ‘to create a better, fairer and more sustainable society’. The fact is that, as long as production is in the hands of competing profit-seeking enterprises (state as well as private), politicians have to pursue a general pro-business policy.

This does not preclude governments introducing regulations that are in the longer term overall interest of the capitalist class as a whole and which do restrict the activity of individual businesses. This is still putting ‘the interest of business first’, but the interest of business in general, not necessarily that of particular businesses, in fact even against “such interests”. Politicians in charge if governments are in the same sort of position as Whyte points out that directors in charge of companies are: their ‘obligations always translate as the long-term profitability and/or economic viability of the company [or, in the case of politicians, of the capitalist economy]’.

For instance, even in the nineteenth-century laws were enacted limiting the hours of work that employers could impose on employees as overworking them risked the physical deterioration of the working class, so making it less efficient and productive of profit. Factory-owning capitalists opposed these laws (and used similar invalid and laughable arguments such as profits being made in the last hour of work) and so had to be forced by the state to act in the general capitalist interest.

Whyte’s pamphlet shows that there are still business leaders and their apologists who put their particular immediate short-term interest before that of the capitalist class as a whole. But what else can be expected when production is in the hands of competing profit-seeking enterprises, each seeking to maximise their profits? Capitalism without the state to hold the ring just wouldn’t work.