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A people's buy-out of Britain's farmland

Colin Tudge - 08 January 2013

Farm landWhy don't we – the British people – buy all Britain's agricultural land so that it can truly be farmed for our benefit?

Is it silly to contemplate a complete 'people’s buy-out' of Britain's farmland? To envisage that all Britain’s farmland should be held in trust, dedicated in perpetuity to Enlightened Agriculture – farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone with food of the highest quality without wrecking the rest of the world?

Even if we conclude (as we could well conclude) that a 100% buy-out would not be sensible (for a whole host of reasons) would it at least be worthwhile to keep the idea in focus?

For in truth the idea is not nearly so outlandish as it might seem. A formal discussion of the possibilities would at least bring to light and into the public domain facts about who owns what, and why, that really are shocking (and a source of great bemusement to our fellow Europeans). Even more to the point, the exercise could prompt present-day activists to raise their sights. At the moment, people who take on small farms or food hubs or shops as individuals or as communities, often tend simply to assume that what they are doing must be small-scale and must therefore be marginal.

So they resign themselves to the idea that the serious stuff – the bulk of the nation’s food production and its distribution – must be left to big units and big companies. They accept the adage – which alas we hear more and more even from the NGOs – that Monsanto and Tesco 'are here to stay' and that the rest of us at best must work round them. If this is so then for all the heroic efforts of the activists, the world will continue on its dreary downward path, with the same people in charge. But once we look at the realities of farming we realize that this is not so. There could and must be a power-shift; and questions of land and land use, lead to this realization.

Finally, by asking the big question – can people at large buy the lot? – we raise a whole range of other questions of many kinds that are highly pertinent to the state of the world and to our future. At a practical level, such a discussion would require us to spell out in orderly fashion all the various mechanisms by which land can be acquired.

Beyond that, we would find ourselves asking what ownership really entails – including the concepts of ownership and usufruct, and the relationship between ownership and security of tenure, and whether philanthropy (the fact that many landowners are prepared or even anxious to allow new enterprises on to their land) can ever be sufficient: whether tenants need the statutory right to occupy, as opposed simply to concessions from people in positions of power who happen to be benign. This in turn leads to deeper discussions about justice and values. In short, the discussion would at least be heuristic.

We might note, too, that recent legislation on community ownership in general, and the localism bill, seem to provide a very good opportunity for serious action of this kind. The exercize might usefully begin with a drive to ensure that the remaining county farms (94% of which are now smallholdings) remain in the public domain, as was the original intention.

But isn’t this all rather over-dramatic? Is the idea of a 'people's takeover' even half-way feasible? Well, a few basic statistics suggest that a massive power-shift is well overdue – and although total buy-out isn’t necessarily the best strategy, financially at least it is far from ludicrous. Thus:

Some basics

1: According to an article by Tamara Cohen in Mail Online (December 16 2012), reporting a survey by Country Life, 36,000 individuals – only 0.6% of the population – own 50% of Britain’s rural land; and Simon Fairlie of The Land has produced the same sort of figures. For a country that claims to be democratic and sends young people to war to impose its idea of democracy on the rest of the world, this does seem a little anomalous.

2: Britain has around 20 million hectares of farmland. The British population is around 60 million. So if each man, woman, and child in Britain bought one third of a hectare, they would between them own the lot. British farmland in late 2012 averages around £20,000 per ha which means that a total buy-out would cost around £6,000 per head. Averaged over a lifetime this is very little – and far less than has recently been taken from us to support failing banks.

In practice, of course, a total buy-out would not necessary, not least because a fair chunk of Britain’s land is already in some form of community ownership and/or is already being used in enlightened ways; and some, beyond doubt, would be gifted. So £6,000 per head is top whack and the real cost could well be less than half. Yet this would bring about the greatest shift in Britain’s social structure since 1066 and improve our future prospects immeasurably. (1066 is a very pertinent date, incidentally, since this is when the present essentially Feudal distribution of land first began. To some extent the aristocracy has been bought out by the merchant classes but the overall political structure of the Middle Ages still persists).

So perhaps it isn’t such a silly idea as it may seem. In fact, I reckon that everyone who wants Britain to be a better place – more secure; more convivial – should put it on their agenda.

Colin Tudge is author of 'Good Food for Everyone Forever' and is co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, the Fund for Enlightened Agriculture, and the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

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04 November 2013 09:49

Yea agricultural land sales are high. Agree but thats an informative article.

15 January 2013 14:11

Colin's suggestion is out of the box thinking - there is nothing wrong with that. The fact is that anyone with the audacity to suggest there needs to be land reform in England is branded as a Stalinist, especially by those with current vested interests in land. Yes we do need land reform, so let's have a reasoned debate about it. I recently worked on a farm where in the 18th century over 300 acres of common land that provided woodfuel for rural dwellers was seized by the King then handed over to one of his mates, with less than 10 acres handed back to the poor of the parish. This land was converted to arable by successive landowners of the rest and is now stranded within a larger arable field so is useless other than to the owner of the surrounding land, who has sinced asked to buy it off the parish. A lot of land was stolen from a lot of people not that long ago - look at common land that wasn't registered in the 1960s and has been improved for farming, etc and no longer accessible to the public. It is time we worked out a way for some of this land to be reclaimed, and recognised that although we 'didn't have the land clearances like they had in Scotland ' (a repost at a conference I attended why I asked whether it was time to have a debate on land reform in England) we had land grabbing on a very large scale when common lands were nicked by the King and 'Lords of the Manor' and successive landowners have reaped significant financial rewards.

Mike Walker
14 January 2013 16:13

Anyone who writes simplistic stuff like: "Britain has around 20 million hectares of farmland. The British population is around 60 million. So if each man, woman, and child in Britain bought one third of a hectare"is not worth reading..A lot of the farmland is in sparsely populated areas.. for obvious reasons.A child of 10 can see the flaw.So if that typifies the depth of thinking behind the proposal , it would be kind to call it "half baked"..

David Alvis
14 January 2013 15:35

Even if in your naively constructed utopia you could somehow raise the money to buy the land, which you wont, you couldn't anyway because as a number of previous posters have already pointed's not for sale. Unless of course you are advocating some sort of compulsory purchase and redistribution scheme, which de facto equates to quasi-state ownership. What is perhaps even more concerning is the idea you have subsequently espoused . That once the nations land has been wrested from the the hands of the evil feudal elite, then its stewardship would somehow be better served by the likes of the RSPB or the National Trust; or even worse as you have suggested elsewhere, a legion of the feckless and the disenchanted who fancy 'having a go' at eco-farming because they've failed to make it in any other walk of life. Even after dismissing the latter for the fanciful nonsense that it is , what makes you think that the former are in any way better qualified to sustainably manage the nations food production than the present incumbents?Given their agenda is clearly wildlife first with food production as a by-product, (which at their current low level of productive land ownership is of little impact or consequence either way) then the idea that they or their ilk have anything approaching either the capability or the inclination to produce a fraction of the nations food requirements is laughable.What you are advocating is a form of quasi-totalitarian eco-cronyism that would actually make the soviet collective farming model look like a paragon of efficiency. You would probably have to look to Mugabe's Zimbabwe to find a more recklessly counterproductive course of action.I wonder just how long your brave new world would last before you found yourself strung up from a lamp post by a hungry mob?

Sarah Eno
13 January 2013 08:58

There are lots of successful and good examples of community (not State) land ownership in Scotland - starting with Assynt crofters about 9 or 10 years ago (?) and other communities (Laurieston Hall in Galloway), island of Eigg. Of course its not all roses managing community projects but these work. I don't think any large areas of high grade agricultural land in east Scotland have been bought as a community project yet - still time! There are several community based farms in England I think. Its perfectly possible.

colin tudge
13 January 2013 08:34

Where in my article do I suggest that Britain's land should be state-owned? Why do people assume that Stalin offers the only alternative to Feudalism on the one hand or the present-day neoliberalism on the other? The kind of model I have in mind for community (as opposed to state) ownership of Britain's farmland would be roughly similar to that of the National Trust or the RSPB. Not exactly Reds under the bed!.

David Alvis
12 January 2013 09:00

its heartening to see the future of 'enlightened agriculture' in such safe hands.However, before Comrade Tudge embarks on his crusade for quasi-state ownership of land, he might like to reflect on the last ime this sort of thing was attempted, for broadly similar ideological reasons. Yes I am talking about the Soviet Union and in particular the impact of that bit of 'enlightened' thinking on say...the Aral Sea.

David Alvis
12 January 2013 08:48

I am heartened to see that the future of 'enlightened agriculture' is in such safe handsWasnt this sort of thing advocated about a century ago, for broadly similar altruistic reasons, by some chap in Russia? I think his name was Lenin or something like that.Perhaps comrade Tudge would like to remind us all of the impact of that piece of 'enlightened' thinking on say.....the Aral Sea.

Ian O'Reilly
12 January 2013 06:25

Utter dribble... that farmland be better managed following it's theft by the state is at best a deluded notion, real control over stocking densities and the over use of nitrogen that is propping up most of todays agriculture can be acheived without dissposessing someone of their family history. NVZ's and lots of them now...

11 January 2013 16:22

What breath of fresh air. Of course it is possible and there are a whole host of possible mechanisms including shifting current land freehold titles to 99 year leasehold from the state, encouraging perhaps a greater concept of genuine stewardship?

10 January 2013 23:53

Much of the farmland sold around me is being bought at exhorbitant prices by developers or horse owners. For fair compulsory purchase 'for the people' to work we'd need a completely different form of government. Otherwise we could end up with land going the way of previously nationalised enterprises - British Steel, British Gas, Water, electricity, etc.

09 January 2013 06:54

What an unbelievably sloppy bit of thinking.even for an SA blogger - based on a whole series of wild assumptions. Firstly, you can't buy what is not for sale - or do you envisage some sort of compulsory purchase procedure? Who is going to farm the land once the farmers have been dispossessed? Why assume that a changed ownership will lead to "Enlightened Agriculture"? Who is going to impose that? Or do you have in mind a sort of "people's commissar" who will specify what is grown and how? You are simply casting around fantasy ideas.

08 January 2013 20:45

What a load of delusional clap trap the government can't run the country let alone attach the "side" to that. At least we have a very high level of diversity in our agriculture

Paul the Plough
08 January 2013 17:36

Most agricultural land is not for sale even at the record prices of today. To force one to hand it over to the state, even at a high price, makes me feel very uncomfortable. What safeguards would you put in place to ensure that: 1) this land was farmed in the highest possible environmental manner in perpetuity for the people. 2) These nationalised assets can never be sold when a government runs short of money or is lobbied by multinationals to do so. Forever is a long time. I think your idea is naive in the extreme.

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