In the last 40 years, the state has sold 10% of Britain’s public land. Why have we heard so little about this?
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
The New Enclosure: the Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain