I’ve just watched â€œWhose Britain is It Anyway?â€? a programme on BBC2 that is essentially a TV version of the book â€œWho Owns Britainâ€?.
Starting from the premise that with about sixty million inhabitants, and sixty million acres of land, if ninety percent of the people live on only ten percent of the land, there must be some pretty big landowners around, it then takes a look at the ten percent of people who own the remaining ninety percent of the land. The task is made somewhat more difficult because a large amount of the land in the UK is not registered. This is because land only gets registered when it is sold or a mortgage is raised on it, so there are currently about four million properties, and millions of acres of land for which the owner is not registered, leading to several issues of ownership that were explored during the programme.
Oddly enough, although they are still comparatively big land owners still, two of the historically large landowners – the Church and the Crown, now actually own rather less – both only owning under one percent each. In fact government groups are the biggest single owners with the Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission owning about ten percent of the country. However, although they own less than in the past, the biggest group of landowners, and the group with the biggest single landowners in terms of area, and in terms of value are the aristocracy – the largest landowner having more than a quarter of a million acres of land in Scotland.
Having said that, what watching the programme also highlighted the importance of what is on the land. For example the land owned by the Duke of Westminster in Belgravia and Mayfair is worth about four billion pounds, but in terms of area, it is less than two hundred acres. In fact it started life as four fields and a bog that was given to the Duke’s ancestor, indeed being able to gain planning permission for a change of use from agricultural land to building land can massively increase the value, going from a few thousand pounds an acre to millions.
All in all it was quite an eye opener, especially that thanks to our tight planning laws, we are, despite what most people think, one of the least built up countries. What we are tending to do is to cram more houses into less space in built up areas, whilst at the same time keeping thousands of acres untouched. So do I think we should be out bulldozing the countryside? I think not. What the programme also highlighted is that large amounts of land are available to the public – the Forestry Commission as well as being the largest single landowner in the country, is also the largest provider of leisure activities, letting people use their land. The Ministry of Defence also lets public onto large parts of their land, and the point was made both by large landowners, and users, that economics of scale come in to play. By owning large amounts of land they are able to properly care for and manage the land for the benefit of all, much more than thousands of small owners could do on a one by one basis.