Who owns England

by Guy Shrubsole
reviewed Jonny Dry

There are a great many artistic satires of Western social structure, yet arguably the most famous is Nicolas Lokhoff’s 1901 social pyramid where each tier supports the one above it. At the bottom, with their feet firmly on the ground, he depicts a working class populace, often hunched from the weight and some only partially visible. They support, in an ever narrowing tower, the successive echelons of society where space becomes increasingly available and affluence more apparent.

We all too often forget, however, that such social structures rely upon the earth beneath in order to remain standing. Yet what Guy Shrubsole argues for in Who Owns England is that the historic support our land has unconditionally given us is quickly becoming shaky. We are “facing a housing crisis”, says Shrubsole, “we’re also in the throes of an epoch-making environmental crisis”, “our unsustainable food system is [...] contributing to poor health” and “our society has grown obscenely unequal”. Who owns land and what is subsequently done with it matters, and has always done so, as Shrubsole’s painstaking research and detailed historiography makes apparent.

The ruling classes arguably realised this early on and set about claiming it for themselves. “All land in England belonged ultimately to the Crown” declared William the Conqueror in 1066, in a single move challenging the concept of Common Land and attaching titles and peerages to the environment. With the stage of ownership thus set, Own Owns England sets out to unravel this complex picture in England and lay bare the continual ebb and flow of land legislation and use across history. It is multi-layered picture that has steadily grown over time. Land is unfortunately at the mercy of all of us, with each having our own lens through which we can look. Shrubsole is not afraid of this multiplicity, and perhaps one of the starkest aspects of the book is its ability to hold almost every political persuasion, economic model, and public institution to account. What your colours are matter’s little to Shrubsole, what matters is your impact on the land. And whilst the criticisms of land use is laid largely on the shoulders of capitalism, right wing politics and the affluent, Shrubsole is not above critiquing any form of mis-management that leads to a squeeze on those at the bottom of the chain or the destruction of valuable natural environment. Both praise and criticism is leveled at the likes of local council, the Crown Estate, the Forestry Commission and private individuals.

Flagging any such short comings however requires information, and gaining access to this knowledge is arguably Shrubsole’s main intent. A recent conversation on land use I had with a close friend of mine came round to discussing how much of our landscapes we thought were completely invisible to the naked eye? What swathes of land could not be seen from a right of way, permissive access or public space? We’re privileged with a degree of access through the 2000 CRoW Act but what visibility does it actually give to English land? Discussion swirled and we concluded that much of our landscape would surely be invisible; hidden by topography, or other natural features that our access doesn’t delve close enough to see around. This for Shrubsole is significant; “if you can’t see it, you’re less likely to ask questions about who owns it”, an idea that has equally driven our alienation from the environment and subsequent ecological crisis.

Who Owns England sets out to change this. To lift as much of the lid as possible on the either forgotten or more likely concealed ownership of our rural and urban landscapes. Grappling with Land Registry records, the odd trespass and tireless journalism, Shrubsole has begun to form a picture, yet there is still work to be done. By his reckoning around 17% of English land ownership is still unaccounted for, and the accompanying digital map is still dominated with white.

It is, nonetheless, a necessary step. Allowing us to not only re-evaluate ownership but also rebuild a sense of place amongst our landscapes. Shrubsole is quick to consider how fortunate he was to have experienced this, and his upbringing amidst the earth and dirt of West Berkshire was deeply formative. The feeling of “being close to the earth, of having a patch of ground to which I feel a sense of belonging, has stayed with me all my life.” Yet it is the contrast of this with latter
parts of the book that really hits home. Themes of belonging do not appear frequently in the book – Shrubsole uses these sparingly – but when they do appear they are powerfully emotive, pointing towards how increased buying power and land ownership does not necessarily answer the desire in all of us to feel rooted somewhere. Large stately homes snapped up by aristocrats and entrepreneurs alike remain empty and crumbling, whole villages such as Tyneham are reclaimed for military use and generations of history and environment lost in an instant, whilst politics plays its games across all of it like a chess board. All this stands out in comparison to what Shrubsole lays out early on, that the flow of hands in to large conglomerates and institutions has eroded any sense of place we might have, and fueled a culture of irresponsible land management that has not been regulated closely enough.

Who Owns England is, first and foremost, a snapshot of what has clearly been an exhaustive piece of research, and a yard stick for the current picture of English land ownership. Shrubsole is keen to point out the shoulders upon which his work stands, not least those of his collaborator Anna

Powell-Smith who contributed substantially to the initial blog and mapping work from which the book was born. Yet there is a deeper network of whistleblowing and activism which is all captured in Shrubsole’s research. Beginning with the early Midland Revolts in 1607 and later 1649 Digger’s stand on St George’s Hill, it is quickly apparent that whilst Shrubsole’s work sheds new light, there is a longstanding culture of of holding freeholders to account, through fraught struggles to document landownership in the 1800s and 1900s, and current debates surrounding some of our largest land owning institutions: “the battle for the soul of the National Trust,” suggests Shrubsole, “will likely continue for as long as it endures. Long may it do so.”

It is an ambitious book that Shrubsole strives to write, one that simultaneously links travel writing, data analysis, history and political manifesto. For the individual passionate about our rural and urban landscapes it is a captivating piece of work that provides a platform of knowledge that can inform future action and perhaps policy. There is an argument to say that, for the wider public, the powerful demands the book makes could become a little swamped with the substantial amounts of information on offer. Yet that can in no way detract from the quality and maturity of the writing on offer. Shrubsole does not here advocate for a regressive policy of socialist land use, but calls for modern forward thinking that puts environment, health and society at the heart of our landscapes, and asks us all to consider that, however far up the pyramid we might be, we got there through exploitation of the land beneath us. It is a book that both public and policy makers should read with equal attention.

About the author

Guy Shrubsole

Activist, writer, troublemaker. In the past Guy has worked for DEFRA, New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and UK think thank Public Interest Research Centre. Currently I’m a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, but this blog is my personal project. Follow him on Twitter @guyshrubsole

About the reviewer

Jonny Dry

A hooked climber and runner ever since Dad took him and his brother up Flying Buttress, Jonny balances his passion for the mountain environment alongside working as a film director and screenwriter on short and feature film projects. His latest film, 'Third Quarter' is currently screening at UK film festivals and he is set to direct two short films in 2019 – 'Touched by Flaming Brands' and 'Thousand Lives’. Within the mountain community he has worked with the likes of the Mountain Heritage Trust, Alpine Club and Mount Everest Foundation on their digital communication, as well as writing on mountain history, culture, and environment. Twitter @Jonny_Dry