In the eighteenth century, highwaymen were the bane of aristocratic travellers, ambushing their coaches on dark roads as they journeyed from townhouse to country estate. Some, like Dick Turpin, came from humble backgrounds, and became seen as robber-heroes – latter-day Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to the poor with their cry of ‘stand and deliver!’.
It would be hard to describe the obscure Section 31(6) of the otherwise exceptionally boring Highways Act 1980 as being a secret agent of social redistribution. But it does at least help uncover some of the vast private estates that still dominate land ownership in England today.
In a nutshell, the Highways Act 1980, s31(6), obliges Local Authorities to keep a public register of all landowners through whose land run public highways and rights of way (such as footpaths, bridleways and roads). This is both to help Local Authorities identify such rights of way, and protect landowners from claims that additional rights of way exist. To register, a landowner has to deposit a statement and a map with their Local Authority – showing very clearly the boundary of their land.
This makes the Act a very helpful resource for obtaining information on private landowners and the extent of their estates, who are otherwise not subject to FOI requests or public sector transparency requirements, and have little interest in volunteering information about their land holdings.
I’m very grateful to a reader of this blog, local historian Nick, who pointed this out to me late last year. Since then, I’ve been gradually piecing together a database of all registers of landowner deposits kept by Local Authorities under the provisions of the Highways Act. For England, that means collating the registers kept by all 152 County and Unitary Authorities, a big task. I’ve not finished doing so yet, but you can see where I’ve got to so far in this Google Fusion Table (screengrab of map below). (Updated fusion table & map 27th March 2017 with more registers.)
The grey Local Authority areas are ones I’ve not done yet (I’ve focused on the larger, more rural counties where there are bigger private landowners; if you can help me complete the database, please post links in the comments below and I’ll add them). The light green Local Authorities are those I’ve found landowner deposit registers for; and the dark green ones are the most interesting, as I explain below.
For most Local Authorities that I’ve looked at, their landowner deposit registers are pretty basic – a webpage listing landowners who’ve made a deposit, with links to PDFs of their full statements and maps. Some councils, in vague efforts to be helpful, have built search engines into their registers, or grouped their lists by parishes. Click through to each map, and you’ll usually get to see an Ordnance Survey or similar high-quality map, with the boundaries of the estate in question outlined in colour. So, this is useful if you’re looking to build up a map of local land ownership – but it’d be very laborious to stitch together all the PDF maps to see a broader picture, and it couldn’t be done digitally.
However, some Local Authorities – those shown in dark green – have gone one step further. They’ve published interactive online maps showing the boundaries of all the landowners they’ve received maps and statements from. This is incredibly helpful. Let’s take a look at some of these maps.
Let’s begin with Devon and Somerset (classic highwayman territory, as immortalised in Lorna Doone). Devon County Council has published a very good map of landowner deposits, revealing the extent of a lot of large private estates. The map displays the land parcels in pink, and when you click on one, it highlights all land owned by the same owner in bright turquoise. An example screengrab is below – showing the huge Clinton Devon Estates, which, according to the Estate’s own website, covers around 25,000 acres. They received £267k in public farm subsidies in 2015.
Having surveyed the wealth of some of Devon’s great estates, let’s hit the highway for Somerset. Here, the council also has a nice map highlighting landholdings, but you can only zoom out so far before this layer disappears – s0 it’s hard to see the full picture. When you click on a polygon, it’ll bring up details of the landowner, but won’t highlight the boundary of the land they own – you have to keep clicking around to check if there’s a break in the boundary. And there are glitches in the records – for example, see the screengrab below: this shows a large private estate near Radstock, but when you click on it, no landowner information appears. It takes some further digging – a close look for stately homes on the underlying map, and some googling – to reveal that this is probably the family estate of the 5th Baron Hylton, whose son lives at Ammerdown House.
Dorset County Council doesn’t actually display the deposited holdings of private landowners on their map, but I think it merits a special mention because it’s a really good use of mapping software, with multiple useful layers – and it does show all land owned by the County Council (see screengrab below). Some badgering of the Council to upload all their landowner deposits would be worthwhile – they clearly have the GIS know-how to do this.
Now, galloping onwards, to Cambridgeshire, home to the land-rich University colleges and some big grain barons. Cambridgeshire Council’s map is very comprehensive, displaying the landowners of perhaps half the county. But though you can click on a polygon and see the landowner, the map doesn’t highlight all that owner’s land at once – you have to click on each polygon to check. One of the largest single land parcels belongs to the Abbots Ripton Estate (just north of Huntingdon) – who, besides being big farmers of barley and sugar beet, host the annual Secret Garden Party music festival.
5) West Berkshire
But I’m saving the best until last – the rich pickings of the Royal County of Berkshire, or to be more precise, West Berkshire (a place that was my childhood home). West Berkshire Council have put together what appears at first to be an impressive online map, showing extensive landholdings, but which – when you try to ask it for information on each land parcel – quickly falls apart. However, all is not lost. Perhaps sensing their online map is not quite up to scratch, the Council have also released a detailed PDF map showing all estates for which they have received landowner deposits, and – crucially – an index, allowing us to match up numbered land parcels with their owners. And as you can see, West Berks is dominated by huge landed estates:
Having grown up in Newbury in West Berks as a kid, I knew it was a pretty wealthy area with some big landowners. What I didn’t know about was the size of the estate owned by the current MP for Newbury, Richard Benyon, who is the richest MP in the House of Commons with an estimated wealth of £110 million. Mr Benyon came in for some heavy criticism when he was Environment Minister for the millions of pounds he earned in public farm subsidies for his estate, and for his support for grouse moors. Now you can see the full extent of Mr Benyon’s Englefield Estate, thanks to West Berkshire council’s map:
Your money or your… map?
Sadly, this obscure piece of legislation isn’t a silver bullet answer to this blog’s driving question of ‘Who owns England?’. As this survey has shown, the information obtainable from Highways Act landowner deposits remains piecemeal. Even with the 5 councils who’ve taken greater steps to make maps available, none of them let you download the GIS data – it’d be worth firing off some Freedom of Information requests to see if this is obtainable.
Maps deposited under the Highways Act are never going to give us a comprehensive picture of land ownership. The best way to do that is to open up the Land Registry. But in the meantime, it’s another step towards holding large private landowners to account. Stand and deliver!