Investigating land ownership: tools & resources

1) Resources and materials on land ownership

Other groups investigating land ownership

  • Who Owns Scotland by the amazing Andy Wightman. The inspiration for this project; incredible maps.

Since starting Who Owns England, I’ve been delighted that a number of other groups have been inspired to investigate and map land ownership in their areas:

Other groups are in the process of setting up, such as ‘Who Owns Middleton’ in Greater Manchester.

And there are an increasing number of journalists and academics investigating who owns their local area, from this project on Who Owns Manchester to this investigation into Who Owns Sheffield.

Books & articles

  • Kevin Cahill, Who owns Britain (2001) – the inspiration for this blog, though Cahill lists – rather than maps – the UK’s major landowners.
  • Marion Shoard, This land is our land (1987) – the book that rekindled interest in land reform in modern Britain, followed by Shoard’s A Right to Roam (1999), which helped bring in the CRoW Act 2000.
  • Andy Wightman, Who owns Scotland (1996) – the seminal work on land ownership in Scotland, including maps. Andy continues to blog here and on his site
  • Richard Norton-Taylor, Whose Land is it Anyway? (1982) – an earlier attempt to show who owns the UK, though less comprehensive than Cahill; interesting chapter on the ‘new money’ and finance capital entering land ownership in the 1970s.
  • Doreen Massey and Alejandrina Catalano, Capital and Land (1978) – a brilliant analysis of land ownership in Britain at the end of the 1970s, offering a snapshot of who owned the country before the era of privatisation.
  • Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laurie Macfarlane, Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (2017) – a recent collaboration between nef and Shelter to re-ignite the politics of land.
  • Andro Linklater, Owning the Earth (2013) – majestic history of global changes in land ownership structures
  • George Monbiot’s 1995 land reform manifestoA call to arms that still resonates.
  • Henry George, Progress and Poverty (1878). The original eloquent argument for a land value tax.
  • Winston Churchill, The People’s Rights (1909) – includes a chapter on land reform and land value tax, written by the 20th century’s most famous politician when he was a young radical Liberal.
  • Roy Douglas, Land, people and politics: The Land Question in the United Kingdom, 1878-1952 (1976) – a thorough, if rather dry history of land politics.
  • Sidney Madge, The Domesday of Crown Lands (1938) – academic study of what happened to Royal lands when they were seized by Cromwell’s Commonwealth after the Civil War and execution of King Charles I.
  • Roger Kain and Hugh Prince, The tithe surveys of England and Wales (1985) – academic but readable overview of tithe maps, the first maps of land ownership in England and Wales since Domesday.
  • David Cannadine, The decline and fall of the British aristocracy (1990) – brilliantly written account of how the Peerage and gentry fell from grace and lost much of their territorial wealth (but not all of it, by any means…).
  • Herbert Girardet (Ed.), Land for the people (1976) – compilation of essays on land ownership, land reform, environmentalism and going ‘back to the land’, from the era of The Good Life and the oil crisis.

Films & plays

  • Winstanley (1975) – the story of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, radical land reformers during the English Civil War. ‘The Earth is a common treasury for all…’
  • The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974) – awesome and very funny film about the history of land rights in Scotland, taking in the Highland clearances, the Victorian shooting estates, and the coming to Scotland of US oil firms in the 70s.
  • Three Acres & A Cow – a brilliant history of land rights and protest told in folk song and story. Having toured for several years, founder Robin Grey has now set up troupes round the country. Check out the website for the latest performances.

Organisations, publications, projects

  • The Land Magazine – essential reading, published by the lovely people at Monkton Wyld in Dorset (which is really worth visiting, too).
  • Shared Assets – a think and do tank that supports people managing land for the common good. Their tool Land Explorer helps you find info on land in the UK.
  • Land For What? was a conference held in November 2016, which has sparked a series of ongoing conversations and meetings.
  • ODI (Open Data Institute) – beacon of the Open Data movement in the UK.
  • Friends of the Earth have published an interesting UK land use calculator here.
  • Nef (New Economics Foundation) are working to expose how public land is being flogged off for housing without properly capturing value for the public. See for e.g. Alice Martin’s blog here.
  • Shelter – as part of their campaigning to solve the housing crisis, Shelter have been calling for the Land Registry to be opened up. See e.g. Cat Banks’ report here.
  • Civitas – centre-right think tank with an interest in land reform to resolve the housing crisis. See e.g. Daniel Bentley’s housing report here.
  • Landworkers’ Alliance – a union of smallholders and farm workers, alternative to the NFU, and advocate of radical land reform.

2) Tools for investigating land ownership

For a five-minute introduction to investigating land ownership, here’s an article I wrote for Red Pepper (Jan 2017). For more detailed tips and tools, read on.

Using the Land Registry 

First things first: familiarise yourself with the Land Registry, registrar of about 80% of the land in England & Wales.

  • Register to use the Land Registry’s online portal. This enables you to search for and purchase land titles (showing who owns a particular land parcel), at £3 per title.
  • However, the Land Registry’s mapsearch services are rubbish. If you want to identify the owner of a plot of land that you know only from its location/ field outline etc, the best thing to do is download the relevant INSPIRE Index Polygon file for that county/ district. These are GIS files showing all land parcels in a map format. You’ll need some desktop GIS software to view them, like QGIS – see the next section for how to download and use this. You can then click on individual land parcels on the INSPIRE map, grab the INSPIRE ID, and search for their owner using the Land Registry’s INSPIRE ID search tool.

Making digital (GIS) maps

Once you’ve got some GIS files, you’ll want to turn those into maps..

  • Download some free desktop GIS mapping software, like QGISdownload site; tutorials here. I’m still a beginner, if anyone knows any good tutorials please post them in the comments section below!
  • Web developer Anna Powell-Smith has a great blog on using Land Registry data to map land ownership data, here.
  • I know as an Open Data aficionado I should really like Open Street Map, but it’s not an easy tool to map with. Google My Maps, on the other hand, is both simple and powerful – for smaller maps anyway (10 layers, 5MB max per imported file). If you’re having trouble reducing the size of your map files to meet the Google Maps file size limit, you may find it useful to try the ‘simplify’ tool in QGIS (in the toolbar, Vector > Geometry Tools > Simplify). Google Maps uses KML files. To convert between the more common Shapefile format and KML files, use QGIS or online convertors like this one.
  • For bigger, more complex maps, you could try using Mapbox or Carto. Both require creating accounts and charge for maps over a certain size/ distribution.
  • Open data and mapping guru Owen Boswarva has some good tips on making GIS maps on his site.

Publicly-available mapping data

I generally try to publish the mapping data I’ve used in blog posts, e.g. as a Google Map, Google spreadsheet etc, so that others can make use of it. If you want to access data underpinning my maps/ posts and can’t find it on my blog, get in touch with me.

Here are some good sources of mapping data for UK land use and land ownership:

Making Freedom of Information (FOI) requests

Here’s a short slide deck presentation I’ve given on various occasions about making FOI requests: FOI presentation 2017

  • allows you to view documents previously released under FOI, though it’s far from comprehensive. Most departments are crap at publishing their FOI responses.
  • FOI Directory is an invaluable list of all FOI email addresses for public bodies.
  • Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) is the NGO that successfully campaigned for the FOI Act for thirty years, run by the legendary Maurice ‘Freedom’ Frankel. They sometimes run workshops in using FOI.
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is an essential source of guidance in using FOI, a place to make complaints and a place to find the Commissioner’s judgements on past difficult cases.
  • What Do They Know is a site used by many to publicly submit FOIs; responses from public authorities are also all published – so worth checking to see if the information you want has already been released before.

Finding out information on companies

  • Companies House – search and view documentation on every registered company in the UK, their directors and annual accounts. A great example of how a public sector organisation can embrace Open Data (Land Registry, take note!).
  • OpenCorporates – for checking out companies registered overseas or in offshore jurisdictions. A great project promoting transparency.
  • DueDil – for understanding the relationship between firms, their subsidiaries and parent companies (but you have to pay after a free trial).

Finding out about farm subsidy payments