What can be owned? With some things, it’s easy. I don’t know who owns this building. It might be a person or an organisation. What I do know is that it’s going to be owned by someone. The same goes for just about any other building in this country (there may be some idiosyncratic exceptions). The same goes for arable fields.
But what about the streets? Who owns them? Well, the Council. But, I’d argue that our understanding of that sort of ownership differs from our understanding of ownership of a building. So people complain about the state of repair of the pavements, or they complain about the cameras on John Dobson Street. We believe that the Council has a duty to manage the streets for our benefit. Ownership, in this case, is not without responsibility.
What about a mountain? This is Blencathra. In 2014 it was announced that its owner, the Earl of Lonsdale, was putting it up for sale. It turned out that an entire mountain can be bought and sold, like a field or a suburban semi. So can an island: the historian and presenter Adam Nicolson inherited the Shiant islands in the Hebrides at the age of 18.
So what do we mean by ownership? In our society it is exclusive and (almost) absolute. A landowner may exploit his land or buildings for as much profit or benefit as he likes. (I’m going to keep on saying “he”; it isn’t always a “he”, of course, but historically it generally has been, and that’s a whole-nother subject area.) Anyone else on that land must have his permission to be there, and can be charged rent. In the absence of planning and environmental constraints, he isn’t obliged to do anything he doesn’t want to, and isn’t forbidden to do anything as long as it’s legal otherwise. He may sell the land, as a whole or in lots, or may pass it on to his heirs.
The picture above shows Mr and Mrs Andrews surveying their acres, painted by Gainsborough. Or rather, here’s Mr Andrews presented in the midst of all his possessions. It’s entirely deliberate. Ownership confers status.
So what’s wrong with the system we’ve got? It gives us an unprecedented level of freedom. Ownership is culturally important to us. An Englishman’s house is his castle. Across the pond, the American Dream of making your fortune through hard work on a plot of land is fundamental.
Well, the main problem with it is that ownership confers absolutely no responsibility towards anyone or anything apart from your own profit. Socially speaking, it’s bound to lead to inequalities: as we know from playing Monopoly, even if everyone starts off at the same point, within a relatively short space of time the assets become concentrated in the hands of certain people, and by the time we get to the next generation, those who didn’t inherit anything are losers to begin with. We’re seeing this happen at present. Some of the generation that came of age in the Second World War were able to buy their own houses after it – thus redistributing land across the population. So were their children and, depending on where they lived, their grandchildren. Then house prices shot up, so that an increased proportion of the country’s wealth became concentrated in the hands of those families who were already doing quite well. Meanwhile, since the social housing sector has been dismantled, if you are young, and aren’t lucky enough to be of one of those fortunate families, in some parts of the country you may be hard pressed to find anywhere affordable to live at all.
Environmentally speaking, absolute ownership is problematic for exactly the same reason – that lack of responsibility. When Andrew Robinson Stoney fraudulently married the heiress to Gibside in 1777, one of the first things he did was cut down the trees on the estate for timber. (The horrific story which follows indicates that he thought he owned his wife as much as he did her estate.) A landowner may build on his land, destroy all the habitats on it, mine its minerals or exhaust the soil by over-stocking. In the UK we have a set of planning and environmental regulations which restrict landowners’ rights for the public good, but some people resent or question them; while I was working as a planner for Durham County Council someone once said to me, “So, if I owned a field and I wanted to build a house on it, you could stop me? C’mon!”
If, at all levels of society, we believe that a landowner should have, as far as possible, absolute jurisdiction over his property, and that his rights should be curtailed as little as possible, we are going to find it hard to stand in the way of large-scale commercial projects, even if they are vastly damaging. Land can become commodity only, and can be bought and sold without any of the purchasers having any idea of putting it to use. We see this at present, when land suitable for housing is “banked” by developers and land managers. It was manifested on the island of Gigha, cited by Alistair McIntosh. Gigha’s owner went bankrupt; the liquidators wanted to make the most out of his landholdings; they were more profitable when vacant; so the tenants were evicted. They, the actual occupants and managers of the land, became the victims of a situation in which the island was seen only as an asset.
Mustn’t land be owned by someone? The historian Andro Linklater argued that, for most of the world, the idea of exclusive land ownership is really pretty recent. Until about 1800, most of the world’s grasslands were not understood to be individually owned. And even in mercantile Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, Rousseau argued: “You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to us all, and the Earth itself to nobody.”
So, what’s the alternative?
Perhaps the most primal relationship between man and land is the inversion of ours: not that we own land, but that we are of it. The “Bushmen” or San peoples of Southern Africa historically had no concept of land ownership at all. They were hunter-gatherers, intimately connected to the land, but they occupied rather than possessed it.
Now I would argue that some vestige of that ancestral attitude manifests itself with regard to mountains or, perhaps, streets. Blencathra belongs to the nation, people might have said before 2014, but they probably didn’t believe that any embodiment of the Nation was going to pop up and take it back. Likewise, I once saw a graffito in a subway that said “So-and-so of Benwell.” I don’t expect that he thought he owned the area as such, but he had enough of a sense of belonging to the place to want to write it in a subway.
So, what’s the problem with that? Well, practically speaking, the concept of “no ownership” doesn’t sit well with farming. You pick something where it grows and nobody may be very offended. You dig up your neighbour’s potatoes and there’s a fight on.
If you stick with hunter-gathering (and throughout history the decision to switch to farming has by no means always been an obvious one) then your population must be relatively low-density, so that you can find enough to eat. The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands are said to have kept the population static by castrating some male infants. Elsewhere, the population may have kept itself static naturally.
What eventually dealt a body blow to both the San and the Moriori cultures was that their lack of farming made them vulnerable to attack. Farming cultures are able to develop a surplus; they can therefore afford to have some people who aren’t actively engaged in food production; these can be engaged in warfare, or equipping others for it. And, since they do have a concept of land ownership, they will take whatever land they can. That’s what happened to the Moriori in 1835 when the Maori invaded. And here are the Dutch invaders in South Africa encountering the San – depicted, of course, by the winners. I don’t know how they treated them initially, but by the later 1800s the Dutch and British had killed or enslaved most of the San people.
Obviously I’m conflating two things here; just because hunter-gatherers tend to be vulnerable to attack doesn’t mean that their way of life is intrinsically flawed. However, in a world with a rapidly increasing population and, potentially, a decreasing amount of cultivable land, we need farming; and we need some concept of land stewardship, at least, to farm. What might that look like?
The obvious next step for a group of new farmers is to operate communally, so that everyone, theoretically, puts in the same amount of work, and gets the same benefits. This can apply to the whole operation – it can be a communal farm- or, more frequently, just to part of it. So, for centuries many English villages had, as well as fields, “commons” on which everyone was able to graze cattle, sheep and geese.
The most obvious and difficult problem with this is that known as the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Imagine that all villagers have access to a piece of common land and each household keeps two cows on it. However, Mr A owns a particularly fecund cow that keeps on producing calves. He has no incentive to curtail the increase of his herd, since feeding them costs him nothing, and soon he prospers by the sale of meat and cheese. Observing this, his neighbours follow suit – with the exception of Mr Z, who says that if everyone keeps that many cows, the common won’t be able to take it. As it happens, Mr Z is quite right: a few years later the grass on the common is exhausted and can’t regenerate; during a dry spell many of the cows die. Mr A, who started the whole thing off, is still better off than his neighbours, because he got in there first and has pursued his goal more aggressively. He is more likely to have retained a surplus. The community as a whole lose their common. The greatest loser is Mr Z, who failed to benefit from the good times when his neighbours did, and now suffers along with them.
Now, the Tragedy of the Commons is a really important principle in environmental philosophy, and can be applied to everything from air to bison to mineral resources: if a resource is free, then each individual is served best by getting as much as possible of it before it’s all gone, even though the interests of the community as a whole is best served by trying to conserve it.
It’s only fair to note that commons need not necessarily mean a tragedy. When agrarian villages had commons, many of them did have rules in place to avoid overstocking; and since everyone had to observe the rules, the community as a whole would have enforced them. Similarly, Linklater says that if the whole farm is managed communally, the main problem is that it requires policing so that everyone pulls his or her weight. It turns out that the hippy ideal of a co-operative means of production may not be entirely peaceable. However, again, the fact that a model requires policing doesn’t mean that it can’t be sustained.
Some cultures have developed various means of farming in which each household is in charge of what it produces, but the means by which they produce it are constrained by custom. The system we all know about is the mediaeval three-field system. Each household had a certain number of strips of land allocated within shared fields. Every year, everyone planted wheat or barley on their strips in one of the fields, oats, peas and beans in another field, and left the other field fallow.
Such systems can be very robust; the three-field system lasted for centuries. However, they are inflexible. The only thing that a peasant in a three-field system could do was grow the prescribed crops. Therefore, they can’t accommodate innovation. Although the principal motivation for enclosure – the reallocation of land into separate landholdings – was the enrichment of the principal landowners in each parish, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was given additional impetus by the development of new technologies and crops which permitted an enclosed farm to yield more crops.
Actually, though, there is room for flexibility in systems like this: take the example of allotment holders in many parts of the UK. They have free rein to plant what they like, but are subject to various rules: they must actually cultivate their land; they may not build on it; they must not keep pigs on it – etcetera.
Another model which has emerged, in various cultures, is tenant-landlord reciprocity. A landlord owns the land, and has tenants who pay him rent. However, his ownership is not absolute, because it’s also understood, firstly, that he has a duty of care towards his tenants (Linklater gives the example of a Vietnamese landlord who had a duty to provide for his tenants’ pregnancies), secondly, that there is security of tenure; thirdly, that people as a whole have various land rights which cannot be undermined. In certain places in England rights of pannage (the right to feed pigs on acorns) and of access, for example, still exist.
What’s the problem with this? Well, firstly, it obviously has inequality built into it. Secondly, it has a tendency to corrupt into outright ownership. This is what happened in the Highland Clearances. Lairds who had, ancestrally, ruled the lands of their clansmen, came to see themselves as owners; it was more profitable to keep sheep rather than house tenants; so the latter were evicted, often with great brutality. By the time the Highland Land League had succeeded in establishing the principle that tenants had security of tenure and no more could be evicted, it was several generations too late. Of all of those evicted in the notorious Sutherland Clearances, only one, who had been a baby when they occurred, eventually made her way back.
So, what now? We have seen that the concept of absolute land ownership is not innate and that different concepts of ownership have existed through time; that, on the one hand, absolute land ownership can have serious social and environmental consequences; but, on the other, that there never was a prelapsarian Golden Age. What can be done now?
I think we need to frame land usage differently. Rather than seeing it as land ownership, which confers absolute freedom, we ought to see it as land stewardship – the idea that he, or she, who manages land should do so not just for his own benefit, but for the longer-term benefit of society and the environment.
I don’t think this can be done without institutional interventions, though. People like me could pontificate as much as we like about the land belonging to all of us and most landowners would say, “That sounds lovely, but I’ve got a business to run.” Remember how, in the story of the Tragedy of the Commons, Mr Z, who withdrew himself from the rest of the villagers’ money-making practices, made no difference to anyone apart from himself. Socially and environmentally responsible behaviour needs to be enforced, or many (perhaps most) people will choose not to abide by it. Once responsibility becomes the norm, however, people come to resent those who don’t respect it. We have, after all, seen this happen in other areas of human activity. Most people, I think, accept by now that drinking and driving is wrong, whereas they would not have done even thirty years ago. To some extent, we get the laws we deserve and the laws generate the society they mean to.
What might these regulatory measures look like?
Well, some of them are already in place. Planning and environmental regulations have, to a certain extent, undermined the idea that a landowner can exploit his land as much as he likes, whatever the environmental consequences. Which is great. However, I’m not sure that that is sufficient to mean stewardship, as such; planning wouldn’t stop the owner of a Mayfair apartment block from leaving it empty while others went homeless; it wouldn’t compel a landowner to remove Japanese knotweed from his land; and it wouldn’t help the evicted tenants of Gigha. Nothing in planning questions a landowner’s right to make as much money as he likes, whatever the consequences for equity and social justice.
The journalist and author George Monbiot, citing Martin Adams, suggests that “those who use the land exclusively should pay a “community land contribution” as compensation. This could partly replace income and sales tax, prevent land hoarding and bring down land prices.”
This is reasonably close to what the radical Thomas Spence argued in the later eighteenth century: he suggested that the inhabitants of each parish should form themselves into a corporation and own the land. “The public is then Lord of the Manor.” Rents would be paid to the corporation and redistributed to the public.
Certainly, I think we need to remove the regulatory and tax mechanisms which at present enshrine the idea of absolute ownership. At present, if you purchase land, and do nothing with it, no mechanism exists to compel you either to act or to sell, whatever the pressures upon it. If the land increases astronomically in value, measures to capture the profit you make for the benefit of communities are inadequate. The RTPI, who are hardly lefty rabble-rousers, recently said that these would be “the single most useful instrument to channel more value generated by development towards public benefit investments such as social housing and good infrastructure, without incurring more public debt.”
But not all land needs to be owned in the same way. We already believe, I think, that things like parks and beaches and mountains belong to “all of us”, whatever the title deeds say. Up and down the country, the efforts of volunteers in these places demonstrate that we are prepared to contribute to their stewardship. “Friends Of” groups pick litter, and plant trees, and informally police the way other people use communal spaces.
Monbiot concludes: “Managing common resources means developing rules, values and traditions. It means, in some cases, re-embedding ourselves in the places in which we live. It means reshaping government to meet the needs of communities, not corporations. In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomising, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.”
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