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A People’s Buy-Out of Britain’s Farmland

Why 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 per cent 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 as 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 exercize 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 calling the shots. But once we look at the realities of farming we realize that this need not be 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 – could people-at-large buy all Britain’s farmland? – 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 per cent of the population – own 50 per cent 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 £6000 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; some, beyond doubt, some of the land we need would be gifted. So £6000 per head is top whack and the real cost could well be less than half that. 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 and more convivial – should put it on their agenda.