Historically, maps of land ownership have often been made by the powerful to keep tabs on the powerless. The Domesday Book was drawn up by William the Conqueror as a swag list, counting up the spoils of his invasion as he handed out patronage to his baronial mates. French plans cadastreaux – maps of local land ownership, nowadays available to view in every town hall in France – were started by Napoleon as a means of taxing land.
Today, having a public map of who owns England offers the opposite: a chance for the powerless to hold the powerful to account. The UK land area is some 60 million acres (England, 32 million acres) – around an acre for each member of the population. Yet an increasing number of us, thanks to spiralling house prices, own nothing at all – while around 30,000 wealthy families continue to own some 50% of the rural land. Visualising this startling, inherited inequality is surely a first step towards building ‘an economy that works for everyone’.
It so happens that we have a map of modern land ownership in England: an organisation called the Land Registry has been building it for over 150 years. Unfortunately, it remains incomplete, and locked behind closed doors. Search its website, and you will be charged £3 each and every time you want to find out who owns a property or field. That’s not so bad if you’re just looking up one plot of land; but trying to find out who owns your town will cost you a fortune. Seek to uncover who owns England, and you will be bankrupted many times over.
So it’s very welcome that an alliance of housing charities, environmental NGOs, unions and open data experts have this week written to the Secretary of State for Business, asking him to open up the Land Registry to the public.
Their intervention comes on the heels of Theresa May’s Government indicating that it had ditched the former Chancellor George Osborne’s plans to privatise the Land Registry – something that could have denied the public an answer to the question ‘Who owns England?’ forever.
Instead, the letter’s signatories argue, the Government should now seek to open up the Land Registry, remove its prohibitive search fees, and unleash the multiple economic, social and environmental benefits of a public register of land ownership.
As the signatories argue:
The wider economic, social and environmental benefits of making land ownership data open could be vast. We envisage it being used for all sorts of purposes: enabling councils and neighbourhood planning fora to identify spare land for house-building; assisting SMEs with finding business premises; helping communities locate derelict land for food-growing or recreation; allowing conservation charities to link up landowners to create wildlife corridors; aiding flood prevention by encouraging whole catchment management between the owners of land along rivers. The opportunities are manifold and exciting.
Let’s hope that the Business Secretary, Greg Clark – whose department is responsible for the Land Registry – and the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, take notice. Indeed, the looming Autumn Statement this November 23rd would be an apposite time for Mr Hammond to draw a line under his predecessor’s plans for the Land Registry, and signal a new direction. Rather than oversee a fire-sale of public assets, the Government could show it is unlocking innovation and helping communities take back control of their own destinies.