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Britain needs land reform

As long as the poor have to rent their homes from the rich and powerful, British society will never move forward, says JULIAN VIGO

WHILE researching a recent piece on the exploitation of young people in the UK through sex-for-rent advertisements, I discovered that the Britain has no official, accurate or complete land registry.

It is important to note that in England and Wales the Crown is the proprietor of all land which is tenured through either freeholds or leaseholds. Of the land in the UK, between 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the Crown tenancies are unknown and a vast chunk of the country’s acreage is held by nobility in what is referred to as hidden coalitions.

After 50 years of legal squabbling, the Land Registration Act of 1925 finally came into existence. Until this point in time, there had been deed registries in most counties in the country.

As Kevin Cahill notes: The effort to create a land registry happened at roughly the same time as the publication in 1873 of the Return of Owners of Land, the so-called “second” or “new” Domesday Book, a coincidence that almost certainly led to the failure of the push for a registry.

The second Domesday of 1873 exposed the inequity of land ownership in Victorian Britain — that all land in the UK was then “owned” by just 4.5 per cent of the population, while 95.5 per cent of the population owned nothing, not even a blade of grass.

Domestic home ownership was in its infancy at the end of the 19th century; most of the land was the property of a very small network of aristocratic families, most of which had dual links to the House of Commons and the Lords. Those who owned everything also had political control of everything.

If anything gives rise to the notion that knowledge is power, it is most definitely how incomplete land registries were created not to record land ownership, but to obfuscate who owns what, a perfect solution to a classentrenched society driven by those who wish to remain in power and in the money.

Early 20th-century Britain gave rise to a reversal of these statistics where the financial burden of the first world war resulted in death duties, declining farm rentals and cripplingly high taxation which rose from 9 to 30 per cent on the income of the wealthy. These events provoked the swift demise of many of Britain’s landed gentry.

Skip to the late 20th century and the elitist machinations of aristocratic entitlement was replicated, albeit amongst a most unexpected mixture of those seeking to dominate land tenure: council tenants who bought out social housing impoverishing public housing indefinitely through the “Right to Buy,” the nouveau-riche, and the middle-class who saw how to get on the property ladder and milk fellow middle- and lower-class workers who, though misfortune or lack of inheritance, did not have the down payment to partake in this land grab.

The British housing market began its descent with the “Right to Buy” scheme, a programme often attributed to Margaret Thatcher, but which had actually already been in place from 1974.

It was with Thatcher’s election, years later, whereby secure tenants of council housing had the right to buy their home at a discount of approximately 33 per cent off the market rate for the first three years, increasing by 1 per cent for each additional year of tenancy.

Viewed from another perspective, in 1979 approximately 42 per cent of the country lived in council homes and today this figure is under 8 per cent.

And although many lived in their newly bought properties initially, many of these flats were later sold to “buy-to-let” landlords. In fact, almost 40 per cent of ex-council homes sold under the Right to Buy scheme are now part of the private rental sector.

So, even if you ran about Britain using the HM Land Registry website, you would be hard pressed to understand the full spectrum of economic power held by this new class of landowners within the country.

And this is not a coincidence, nor is it the result of some natural disaster or freak computer accident. This is a perfectly desirable situation for those classes of people who, once upon a time, tweaked nobility for their own favour and today those who have merely replaced this sort of blue-blood authenticity for capitalism’s bravado.

We are living in an era where the younger generations are facing a life saddled with student debt and the inability to ever purchase a home due to paltry salaries and the high cost of living in the UK. Add to this the fact that employment — when it actually pays a salary — rests either in the minute chance of a start-up actually panning out or in the freelance sector with people working on virtual projects, such as content creation, proofreading, and company formation.

Most jobs, however, are not commanding the salaries that result in mortgage approval and more and more people are haemorrhaging their salaries to wealthy landowners.

Where name and title were once the signs of respect and honour, today the amassment of property and wealth has become the domain of those who have been able to “work the tables” in their favour.

While the vast swathes of multi-home tenancies abound in the country, from the new Duke of Westminster who owns 300 acres in central London, to the middle-class landlord who subsidizes his living through renting out homes, to those who are much like indentured servants to their modern-day “lordship,” the relationship of wealth and power in Britain is directly effected through land tenancies.

While few of the purchasers care about the homelessness of those future renters they will exploit, equally as few councils have the political interest to change this tide of neoliberal capitalism to the disgruntlement of local citizens.

St Ives, Cornwall, however, has made a dent in the mentality that “greed is good” when in May 2016, over 80 per cent of St Ives residents voted against any second home buyers in their town, opting for only full-time residents.

While this was an incredible decision for many of the feudalists, it was a welcome decision by the people who exercised their rights under the 2011 Localism Act which dictates that if over 50 per cent of the voters support a certain neighbourhood plan, that this decision by the people must be observed.

After the architectural firm RLT Built Environment challenged this ruling on the grounds of human rights legislation and on the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) deriving from European Union law, the High Court ruled in favour of the people of St Ives.

But the domination of poorer towns in southern England is incredibly pernicious, as the recent buyout of one of the country’s poorest towns, Hastings, is having devastating effects on the people there who have taken to naming their recent invaders “Filth,” an anagram from “Failed In London Try Hastings.”

There is particular ire among many who view this form of investment as “vulture” capitalism and who partake in online forums which are embarrassingly demonstrative of that colonial mentality which gives a tacit nod to the invasion of the geographical space of communities, only to later have the audacity to write about Hastings’s “lazy” and “selfish” residents.

Some make the claim that the reinvestment in poor cities like Hastings increases ecological architecture projects which help Britain with its goal to make its domestic architecture more sustainable.

But most residents are simply gobsmacked by the levels to which wealthier people from London have descended upon a city struck with serious problems of unemployment, homelessness and drug addiction.

One woman recounted to me the story of her friends who lived in Dalston, but who were upset because this part of London was “becoming too gentrified for them as it lost being edgy.”

She continued: “So, they moved to Hastings. And my thought was that they ignored that by moving to Hastings, they were the ones ‘gentrifying’ somebody else’s town.

“For better or worse, they had become the interloper they had claimed to want to get away from.”

Ultimately, people from Hastings are now priced out of their own town by those who felt entitled to work the system in their favour. Homelessness around the country, to include Hastings, is rising and nobody who is amassing one home after another seems to be bothered about their participation in this unfortunate fact.

Today, living in Britain is a challenge to most. Adults moving back home with their ageing parents is becoming more common than not, as is the reality that many Brits are looking to move overseas. There is a sense of helplessness by both the young and middle-aged as to how to move forward economically as jobs are scarce and housing even more so.

We cannot move forward as a society when those who have wealth, maintain the power to control the rental markets, to inflect economic misery on the masses, and even to mistakenly believe that capitalism is more honourable than having indentured servants who run to the city centre to work for paltry sums, paying the landlord at least half their earnings.

We must have that uncomfortable discussion about land ownership in Britain and beyond about this particularly slave-like facet of capitalism, which pits those indebted to landowners as morally dubious and those who bathe in real estate and opulent wealth as virtuous.

In order to invoke the commitment of people to move away from such polarisations, we need to insist upon land reform now.

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