Made possible by developments in digital mapping and the Freedom of Information Act, this riveting and revelatory book charts how England's elite came to own common land that used to belong to its people. From the Duke who owns the most expensive location on the Monopoly board to the MP who's the biggest landowner in his county, Shrubsole, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, unearths land ownership truths concealed since the time of the Domesday Book. He also offers an inspiring manifesto for how we can really "take back control of our green and pleasant land".
The way landowners behave has implications for how we grow our food, build our homes and treat nature. Intensive farming, according to Shrubsole, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, means that we are in the throes of an epoch-defining environmental crisis... Shrubsole is an entertaining guide to the history of landownership, although his jaunty left-wing populism and tabloidesque clichés (aristocrats swagger, Churchill growls, Daily Mail headlines scream) can grate at times. The fact that he takes most of his oral evidence from campaigners, conservationists and journalists, and seems to have had little contact with landowners and farmers, sometimes leads to caricature.
After a slightly dry start in which the complexities of historical land data and modern research methods are explained, Who Owns England? takes us on a tour of how land has been owned and managed here, from William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book (“a swag list”) and the subsequent carve-up of England for the aristocracy to the purchase of London mansions, country piles and grouse moors by American industrialists, Arab royalty and Russian oligarchs. Notable stop-offs include the Crown’s anachronistic and opaque Duchies; the Church’s quietly profitable sell-off of glebe land, once used to support parish priests; the fire sale of state-held land, which began under Thatcher and continues apace today; and the pressured history of county farms, allotments and common land, all of which have held enormous value for ordinary people. Though broken up here and there with Shrubsole’s exploits, including chaining himself to a digger, descending into a tunnel under Whitehall and several instances of trespass, it’s a dense read, packed with data and descriptions of complex political manoeuvrings. For the body of the book he mostly avoids tub-thumping, but his own, left-wing politics are not exactly disguised... [H]aving come to the end of this illuminating and well-argued book it’s hard not to feel, as my character Jack did, that it’s time for a revolution in the way we manage this green and pleasant land.
What’s astonishing about his research is how little has changed in the last 1,000 years. His figures reveal that the aristocracy and landed gentry – many the descendants of those Norman barons – still own at least 30% of England and probably far more, as 17% is not registered by the Land Registry and is probably inherited land that has never been bought or sold. ... Both detective story and historical investigation, Shrubsole’s book is a passionately argued polemic which offers radical, innovative but also practical proposals for transforming how the people of England use and protect the land that they depend on – land which should be “a common treasury for all”.
Aside from the endless conspiracy theories and the obsessive class hatred, it is a light read with some eclectic thoughts, particularly on the disappearance of the Church’s glebe land. The book is useful, not in the way intended as a desirable blueprint for land reform, but as a chilling insight into the mindset of a neo-Rousseauist and a foretaste of a socialist government’s attitude to property if a certain celebrity allotment holder ever seizes power.
A serious work about property ownership and environmental policy would have been a timely addition to an urgent debate... Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England?, a polemic that “reveals” the UK’s biggest landowners, calls for the largest estates to be broken up and advocates abandoning vast swathes of countryside to “rewilding”, is unfortunately not such a book... [Shrubsole's] failure to recognise the importance of human efforts ranks as the book’s central flaw. The countryside requires management to produce food, maintain a rich variety of habitats and maximise biodiversity. A dispassionate survey of ownership would have been a useful undertaking. Instead, Who Owns England? is a wasted opportunity. Shrubsole eschews detailed consideration of the enormous range of stewardship and conservation activity already going on in favour of a catastrophising Left-wing polemic imbued with parodic student-union chippiness, determined to see conspiracy at every turn.
[T]hough this book is suffused with its author’s bile towards society’s “haves”, it would be mistaken to ignore the issues about which he is right. One of his central themes is the abuse of secrecy: it is extraordinarily difficult to discover who owns much property, wrapped in a web of trusts and offshore companies. This is inherently wrong... About half this book deserves attention, because the author highlights indefensible abuses, above all secrecy about ownership identity. It is also repugnant that some grandees shelter their estates offshore. But he rejects a boring reality about most things in life: that wisdom is likely to be found in a middle ground, not on the wilder shores of a Corbynite utopia. Shrubsole is ideally qualified to become Commissar for Redistribution under a Labour government. Yet whatever the imperfections of our system of land ownership, otherwise known as capitalism, it seems pretty wonderful alongside the landscape that fulfilment of his own vision would create.
Shrubsole ends his fine inquiry into these issues with a 10-point prospectus as to how this millennium-long problem might be brought up to date, and how our land could be made to work productively and healthily for us all. This ranges from obvious political measures to prevent landowners hoarding land and leaving property empty to a “public register of trusts” that would close loopholes around inheritance tax; also included are the need to reinvigorate buried pieces of legislation such as everyone’s “statutory right to an allotment” (we devote 10 times more land to golf courses). Any reform must begin, however, he argues, with a determined end to the secrecy around ownership. His book makes a good start. If we really want to “take back control” we might start by thinking about the ways we share out the nation’s primary sovereign resource, “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
There are some interesting arcana (the peculiar role of the Duchy of Lancaster) and some striking statistics (the combined grouse moors of England and Wales take up an area bigger than Greater London). Lively anecdotes abound, such as the author’s visits to a disused Cold War tunnel complex under London, and to a dismally decaying landfill site in Essex. However, he struggles to pull it all together. Instead the reader is assailed with a scattergun blast of left-wing causes and gripes, often irrelevant, contradictory or both. Shrubsole works for Friends of the Earth, and it shows... His dislike for the royal family, Ronald Reagan, pesticides, blood sports and the Iraq War is distracting and intrusive. A more rigorous editor would have told him firmly to focus on the important and interesting question of who owns the country, rather than carping about who runs it.