The New Statesman has a good piece about land politics in the UK today, puncturing the myth of overcrowding and urban sprawl; indicating the enormous subsidies given to already-rich landowners; and effectively demonstrating the continuing importance of feudal relations. Here are a couple of excerpts:
A political consensus has hardened that there are too few houses being built and that our planning laws are too restrictive. Equally most people seem to believe that too much of Britain, especially England, has been bulldozed and obliterated; that our land is less pleasant and less green with each passing year. In fact, only 10.6 per cent of England (and 6 per cent of Britain) is developed. The myth spun about this country is that land is scarce. It is not – landowners, many of them aristocrats who acquired their land through a quirk of ancestral good luck or who benefited from the Norman Conquest, the dissolution of the monasteries or the enclosure of common land, are paid to keep it off the market through a system of European Union agricultural subsidies (see table below). What is scarce is land on which there is planning permission to build…
The United Kingdom is 60 million acres in size, of which 42 million acres are designated “agricultural” land and 12 million are “natural wastage” (forests, rivers, mountains) owned by institutions such as the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust. The remaining six million acres are the “urban plot”, the densely congested land on which our houses, factories and offices are built. (Most of the 62 million people of these islands live on just three million acres.)
What this means, in effect, is that 69 per cent of British acreage is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population, or 158,000 families (the so-called cousinhood), a concentration of ownership unrivalled in western Europe with the exception of the kingdom of Spain.