A new way of looking at the right to own land
The UK Government proposes to give subsidies to farmers for improving the environment. The proposed scheme to be phased in for 2028 states:
“Introducing the Environmental Land Management scheme to incentivise sustainable farming practices, create habitats for nature recovery and establish new woodland to help tackle climate change.”
This represents a new way of looking at the right to own land, so it may be worth delving into the moral and legal justifications for property.
Land, like air, should belong to all
An eloquent proposition – probably of Quaker origin – is:
“You are a child of the Universe. As much as the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”
Under such a philosophy nobody would have a right to own a patch of land, anymore than a stretch of water or a puff of air. All of us on the planet can claim any of it.
In practice, many living beings exert territorial rights: I hear the blackbird calling, I see the dogs defining their trails in poo. Even in hunter-gatherer societies, there is some sense of territory – ours and theirs – defined by landmarks and oral tales rather than by documents.
While land is plentiful, herding families can divide it amicably (Abraham and his nephew) but once arable farming with investment in water and walled fortifications developed, wars between tribes increased (as described in the battle of Jericho, where a town fell to the invader). The Jews proclaimed that land was promised by God, but in fact as the Bible shows us, that those with the strongest army can seize lands from former occupants.
In British history this was how land was settled by Romans, by Anglo-Saxons, by Normans, although it was a while before this was codified into property that could be bought and sold.
A justification for owning land as property was given by the philosopher Locke, who wrote, “The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”
This was a potent new maxim to assist with the wealth creation in the forthcoming decades of agricultural improvements, canal-building, mining, and factories. Property-owning incentivises improvements. This is why all over the world collective land ownership is mostly giving way to individual title documents, codified by lawyers. In South Africa, where land is to be redistributed by government decree, the evaluation has to take account of improvements made.
Historically, societies where land use prevailed (pre-colonial and tribal societies) had to yield to societies with codified law, where titles to property can be bought and sold. Collective land use did not produce enough surplus to support other functions (trade, education, health, luxuries, the arts) that the leaders of society required.
St. Augustine brought literacy and written title deeds to Kent
To understand what happened in Kent, it is worth going back to St Augustine of Canterbury. At the time of his mission (597 AD) the Anglo-Saxons (Jutes in Kent) had settled in villages, each household self-sufficient, with strips of land for ploughing, a share in the village meadow for their animals, and rights in the woodlands for coppicing and the rootling pigs.
They had to render service too – military service as required, and also food contributions if the ruler passed by. But St Augustine received a grant of land from King Ethelbert recorded by a charter. He needed land to establish the church with personnel who were exempt from other services.
So started the system of “bokland” (as opposed to the “folcland” of the farming villages). Using the literacy of the monks, property could now be granted by the King, or bought, sold or bequeathed, all duly documented in a charter or title deed. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, most land in England was either held by the nobles (eorls) or the monasteries. Farming was done by villagers who had to render services and/or pay dues to the landowner.
This system of property-ownership was further feudalised by William the Conqueror, starting with his Domesday count of exactly who owned what. He granted large tracts of land to his military chiefs, especially in strategic locations where castles were needed. They in turn granted sub-divisions to their followers, on condition that they could be called upon as soldiers. These in their turn became lords of the manor over villages, also with the right to services from the inhabitants, mostly in the form of agricultural labour. The villagers were bound for life to work on a particular estate, which might also be owned by the Church, or later by one of the new Colleges.
Church lands redistributed
By the time of Thomas Cromwell, the monastic lands, it is thought, were about a third of all estates in England, most of which were now sold off or granted by King Henry VIII to his cronies. Serfdom had been reduced, both because of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and also because the Black Death increased the value of labour and many estates paid their farm-workers. Serfdom was abolished by Elizabeth I in 1594, but copyhold, whereby villagers farmed land for an estate, lasted until the twentieth century.
Enclosures, large estates and loss of Commons
But increasingly enterprising estate-owners wanted more land and targeted the commons (those meadows and woods used by the villagers in common). Even Shakespeare was on the side of the enclosers in his native county. They wanted more fields for sheep (the wool trade was highly profitable) and later for various agricultural techniques that required larger fields than the old strip system. What happened to the villagers?
In some parts, such as with the Highland clearances, the depopulation was so drastic that many had to migrate. In England, the growth of towns, especially with the mines and factories of the Industrial Revolution, absorbed the surplus workers.
The land was now fenced off, mostly in large estates owned by hereditary aristocrats, or by those who gained riches in the Empire, some by slave-labour in sugar plantations. There has recently been a flurry of investigation by Black historians into just how many large estates are still held today by the former slave-owning families.
Large estates are generally more lucrative to farm than smaller ones, especially with modern methods of monoculture, which is why, in many parts of the world, small mixed farming, as well as subsistence farming, gives way to large estate management. The greater part of the EU CAP subsidy to British farming went to the large farms, and even the NFU is dominated by the large-scale farmers.
This is acceptable if the main purpose of farming is to produce enough food for the non-farming population, but it does not result in a balanced environment. Sheep have munched up the wooded slopes of most hillsides, and hedgerows have been rooted up to suit the huge harvest machinery. A subsidy that takes account of environmental needs is long overdue.
This brief trot through the history of land ownership reveals this series of conflicting concepts:
- Land is free for all who need it to survive
- This territory is for sole use of me and mine and I can fight off any invaders
- This land is for my tribe, given by my God and occupied by my ancestors, a beguiling lie that ignores migration
- Land should be held in common,utilised by a collective, but this rarely produces a surplus except under strictly authoritarian regimes
- Land must be consolidated into estates, managed for its surplus, to feed growing urban populations and extract profits for owners who may be distant investors
- Land must be utilised in such a way as to assist the survival of all on this planet, taking account of climate-change risks, bio-diversity needs, and the dangers of pollution.
Current politics shows a mix mostly of 3 and 5. It will be interesting to see how far concept 6 will prevail in the forthcoming decades.