In the last 40 years, the state has sold 10% of Bri­tain’s pub­lic land. Why have we heard so lit­tle about this?

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Will Self

If you’re some­one who’s in­ter­ested in Bri­tain – and I mean Bri­tain tout court: the whole 94,060 square miles of its phys­i­cal ex­is­tence – then this is a book you must read. If, fur­ther, you’re any kind of stu­dent of the na­tion (its pol­i­tics, its so­cial forms, its eco­nomic par­tic­u­lar­i­ties) then Brett Christo­phers’ painstak­ing sur­vey of land pri­vati­sa­tion since the Thatcher era will tell you many things you al­ready know. But it will also re­veal how all these things you al­ready know are, in fact, un­der­pinned by a sin­gle terra incog­nita – in this case a lit­eral one. For, af­ter painstak­ingly scru­ti­n­is­ing the ev­i­dence, and crunch­ing the num­bers, Christo­phers ar­rives at this ex­tra­or­di­nary es­ti­mate: since 1979, no less than 10% of the land area of Bri­tain has been sold by the state – in all its var­i­ous guises and in­car­na­tions – to the pri­vate sec­tor.

What land ex­actly are we talk­ing about here? There’s cer­tainly been a great deal of Forestry Com­mis­sion land shed (at its peak, in 1981, it’s es­ti­mated that some 10% of Scot­land was owned by the com­mis­sion), al­though not as much as you might ex­pect. And there is the land as­so­ci­ated with the for­merly na­tion­alised in­dus­tries – rail­ways, coal, steel, wa­ter etc. Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have no­tably al­lowed schools to build on their play­ing fields, and al­lot­ments to be con­creted over, while the NHS, since the es­tab­lish­ment of the so­called in­ter­nal mar­ket, has dis­bursed it­self of great swatches of the green and pleas­ant stuff, to­gether with as­sorted build­ings. As a re­sult, some trusts now find them­selves in the in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion of hav­ing to buy back land to build hospi­tals on. As do some of those coun­cils with the temer­ity to start build­ing so­cial hous­ing again, be­cause, of course, the land be­neath the prop­er­ties Margaret Thatcher gave their ten­ants the “right to buy” has been flogged off as well. So has a lot of the Min­istry of De­fence’s es­tate – old aero­dromes and re­dun­dant fir­ing ranges – but Christo­phers de­votes con­sid­er­able space to the ut­ter fiasco at­tend­ing the sell-off by the MoD of its res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties. I could go on: suf­fice to say we’re talk­ing bil­lions of pounds here, ap­prox­i­mately 400 of them. Christo­phers es­ti­mates to­tal land pri­vati­sa­tion sales to ex­ceed the gov­ern­ment’s bailout of RBS by a fac­tor of 12.

This is the “new en­clo­sure” of Christo­phers’ ti­tle: by Brett Christo­phers, Verso, £20 a trans­fer of rights to land com­pa­ra­ble to the great cen­turies-long alien­ation of the so-called “com­mons” that con­sti­tuted – for Marx at least – the “pri­mary ac­cu­mu­la­tion” of cap­i­tal­ism. We’re all fa­mil­iar with the nar­ra­tives as­so­ci­ated with these orig­i­nal en­clo­sures. For boost­ers, civil­i­sa­tion as we know it was born out of putting up the fences and stop­ping the peas­antry from graz­ing their live­stock. Christo­phers is at pains to dis­tin­guish be­tween the alien­ation of rights in­volved in these his­tor­i­cal en­clo­sures (which didn’t nec­es­sar­ily en­tail trans­fer of ti­tle), and the new ones, where own­er­ship is of the essence. In both in­stances, how­ever, the ra­tio­nale has been in­creased ef­fi­ciency of re­source ex­ploita­tion.

The grand nar­ra­tive of liberal progress, from im­proved agri­cul­ture, to in­vest­ment in new in­dus­trial pro­cesses, to the giddy el­e­va­tion of the City’s glassy epit­o­mes of purely fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal­ism, ar­guably rests on this very pro­saic foot­print: land. As for ne­olib­er­al­ism, Christo­phers, af­ter con­sid­er­ing the avail­able op­tions, plumps for pri­vati­sa­tion it­self as its defin­ing el­e­ment. If pri­vati­sa­tion, he writes, “is in­deed the car­di­nal fea­ture of Bri­tish ne­olib­er­al­ism, then the big­gest pri­vati­sa­tion of them all, that of land, is ar­guably the coun­try’s sem­i­nal po­lit­i­cale­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment over the past four decades”. Why then, do we know so lit­tle about it – es­pe­cially given we Bri­tons are cur­rently go­ing through such a grand pub­lic con­vul­sion re­gard­ing our sovereignty?

Christo­phers ac­knowl­edges the pi­o­neer­ing work of the late Doreen Massey (to whom his book is ded­i­cated), whose anal­y­sis of land ten­ure in the pe­riod im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing Thatcher’s pri­vati­sa­tion drive sets the scene for what en­sued. Massey was quick to un­der­stand that land was be­com­ing “fi­nan­cialised” be­fore the term was even coined – quick, also, to grasp its im­pli­ca­tions for both the com­mon­wealth and in­di­vid­ual rights.

That her ini­tial work wasn’t taken fur­ther – or was de­vel­oped only spo­rad­i­cally – is in large part, Christo­phers sug­gests, due to se­crecy. The par­ties in­volved in the land pri­vati­sa­tions have made no ef­fort to pub­li­cise them. What’s more, while a vast ar­ray of state or­gan­i­sa­tions have been charged with sell­ing off their land to the pri­vate sec­tor few have kept com­pre­hen­sive records. This, per­haps, shouldn’t sur­prise us. The un­der­ly­ing pat­tern of land own­er­ship in Bri­tain has al­ways been weirdly opaque, with no manda­tory and cen­tralised reg­is­tra­tion of ti­tle as there is in other coun­tries. You don’t have to be a con­spir­acy the­o­rist to see some­thing sin­is­ter in this: Bri­tain’s land­lords Liver­pool’s Mu­nic­i­pal Build­ings was bought in 2017 by a lux­ury ho­tel de­vel­oper based in Sin­ga­pore

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The New En­clo­sure: the Ap­pro­pri­a­tion of Pub­lic Land in Ne­olib­eral Bri­tain

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