Fascinating that Kevin Cahill’s review of our country’s land ownership is so hard to track down; much of its subject matter was dealt with previously by The Return of Owners of Land, published in 1872, and which has been pretty comprehensively erased from public knowledge for the last century or so. In 1876 every citizen of Great Britain could go to his or her local county hall, parish office or library and find the names and addresses of the owners of 95% of the land area of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - but in the last 125 years access to information about the ownership of land has receded rather than advanced.The land-owning records, once available in every parish, were abolished.
I'm known at Johnson Towers for ploughing my way through weighty tomes (the school librarian in one of my former workplaces once remarked that I was the only person who had checked out Iona & Peter Opie's The Language and Lore of Schoolchildren in all her years there!), and this one was very densely textual, but serious readers will, I hope, be grateful for the facts which Kevin Cahill has assembled in order to reveal some home truths about our 'sceptred isle'.
I own I have not fully digested every fact this book presents, but I was deeply impressed by its main message, which is that large amounts of the land in Britain are not properly registered. At the time of publication, more than 30% and maybe as much as half of the actual acreage of England and Wales was not recorded in the Land Registry for those two countries. This impacts on the availability and, crucially, the cost of, land for development.
This review would become an enormous essay if I were to lay out all of the book’s salient points, so here are a few nuggets to whet your appetite:
1. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he freed up around 10 million acres of England alone to distribute to his followers - a group of about 1500 families. The incomes from the old church lands put huge wealth at the barons' disposal.
2. The industrial revolution was paralleled by the enclosures, the legal device used to include common land into landed estates, thus excluding the peasantry who had lived off the common land, and increasing the labour supply to the factories. It is a truism of conventional British history that the landowners were the dominant force in British politics right up to World War Two... what the history of landownership in Britain proves, and modern political economics demonstrates, is the inseparable bond between land and power.
3. Since the late 19th century, all formal tax on land has been abolished, and the specific taxes which have been substituted have placed the larger burden of taxes on the smallest landowners, domestic homeowners, while removing it altogether on the largest landowners. In addition, the larger landowners, (189,000 people own 88% of the land) are in receipt of subsidy to the tune of £4 billion annually. They pay no tax on that asset.
4. Those closest to and most likely to have real influence with the Queen are almost all hereditary aristocrats (the book gives details of the lands owned by these and the Royal Family) and landowners ... overwhelmingly connected to a very small group of banks ... the particular coalition which crowds the Palace, the Crown Estate and the two duchies (Lancaster and Cornwall), with its secret lobbyists and advocates, is the same group that stands to benefit the most from perpetuating the black hole at the heart of the land registry. These are people distinguished from the rest of the population by owning the vast bulk of the land on which the population at large depends for homes, and, to a lesser extent, food.
5. Since 1993, as part of the general and undisclosed settlement made between the Queen and the government in relation to tax, Prince Charles has paid normal tax rates, but his private company, The Duchy of Cornwall, pays no capital gains and no corporation tax.
6. The Duchy of Lancaster (created in 1351) is a very large landed estate, mostly based in the north of England with some land in London. The Queen, who is also Duke of Lancaster, receives the revenues from this estate tax free. It now runs to almost 47,220 land-based acres, but taken with its estuarial waters and riverbeds of 125,000 acres, it actually comprises close on 172,000 acres. To these can be added £66 million in Stock Exchange investments and £5 million in cash. The Duchy pays no tax on anything. The money it pays to the Queen, £5.7 million in the most recent account, is tax-free. If the Duchy had paid corporation tax and capital gains tax at the standard rate of 40% in 1997 that would have been at least £3 million to the Exchequer.
7. Professor Cannadine, in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, wrote of the late 19th century: 'the contemporary cult of the country house depicts the old land-owning classes as elegant, exquisite patrons of the arts, living lives of tasteful ease in beautiful surroundings. Of course, there is some truth in this. But as a representation of the totality of patrician existence, it misleads and distorts, by failing to recognise them for what they really were: a tough, tenacious and resourceful elite, who loved money, loved power and loved the good life'.
(And the British public love Downton Abbey..... talk about the opiate of the masses! Ed.)
8. Cahill goes into much detail of one of the Plantagenet families still very much in evidence : the Howards, and comments 'It is quite an achievement to have kept £2 billion in the family for almost 400 years'. In all, 20 Plantagenet descendants appear in the Sunday Times Rich List.
Incidentally, Kevin Cahill has now written Who Owns the World: The Hidden Facts Behind Landownership. I look forward to reading it.