Brett Christophers: land privatisation: driven from Whitehall & pursued ‘with gusto’ by Conservative-led governments

In a Financial Times guest post, Brett Christophers, professor in the Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University in Sweden, outlines the recent history of land privatisation in the UK. His latest book, “The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain” was published by Verso Books on 6 November 2018. He opens:

“It is an oddity of political discourse in Britain that far-and-away the biggest privatisation also happens to be the one about which least is known. This is the privatisation of land.

“Since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street, approximately 2 million hectares of land — or 10 per cent of Britain — has disappeared from public hands, the vast bulk of which has entered private, as opposed to charity or community, ownership”.

Christophers estimates the value of the privatised land at £420 billion and comments that no other UK privatisation has been worth more than a tenth of that sum.

He describes it as ‘a quintessential case of death by a thousand cuts’. The vast majority of the 1,000 different public bodies in the UK have sold sites, ranging from forest to defence land in the case of central government bodies, and from recreational to farm land in the case of local government bodies.

Record-keeping is fragmented so it is impossible to say precisely how many individual pieces of land have been sold, but Christopher says “It is certainly several tens of thousands; there have been over 10,000 sales of local authority-owned school playing-fields alone”

He describes these enclosures as a deliberate program, driven centrally from Whitehall, and pursued with particular gusto during periods of Conservative-led government, employing a variety of mechanisms to get landholding bodies to sell. Whitehall has:

  • allowed some sellers to retain and reinvest (some) disposal proceeds,
  • set disposal targets,
  • squeezed budgets, more or less compelling landholders to liquidate assets,
  • and introduced laws preventing landholders from blocking sales, most notably with local authorities and housing land under the Right to Buy.

One of Whitehall’s principal justifications for driving the sale of public land has been to enable the private sector to build new homes on it. But much of the public land released to developers in recent years has simply been added to their land banks: “The average number of years of housing supply sitting in the major UK housebuilders’ ‘current’ banks — those containing land that has, or is close to receiving, planning permission — doubled from around three in 2006 to around six a decade later”.

Building too many homes too soon risks ‘disturbing the market price’ of housing, “In other words, it hits profits”

Midway through Sir Oliver Letwin’s investigations into landbanking practices, the letter he wrote to Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid made it clear that when developers bank rather than build on land they do so because building too many homes too soon risks ‘disturbing the market price’ of housing, “In other words, it hits profits”.

Another World is Possible comments:

A Corbyn government could impose a requirement that developers actually build houses (particularly affordable ones) on land already privatised for that purpose.

It could reform the 1961 Land Compensation Act to reduce the cost of widespread compulsory (re) purchase of some of the ‘lost’ 2 million hectares of public land.

It could think carefully about the use of the 2 million hectares of public land that remain.

Repurchase could enable the local public sector to restore social and environmental provision: affordable and social housing, allotments, libraries, leisure facilities, playgrounds and parks.