Why stop at England's forests? The land itself should belong to the people

The campaign against the privatisation of England's public forests succeeded due to a powerful sense that we, the people, own our woodlands. Yet why stop here? Isn't the land itself a common asset of the nation? Julian Sayarer argues for the imposition of a land value tax.
Julian Sayarer
3 April 2011

A year ago you would have been forgiven the prediction that World Forest Day 2011 might not have held much political significance. Then came October 2010, the coalition government’s proposed sell-off of the 18% of English forest still under public ownership, and a move that prompted nationwide opposition, cross-party condemnation, and an eventual policy U-turn that meant World Forest Day on 21 March presented a second opportunity to celebrate a victory for people-power over unpopular politics.

Whatever the welcome success of the campaign, that which it left unsaid may yet prove more telling than its actual accomplishments. Central to mobilisation of opinion against the sale was the principle, as espoused by the Daily Telegraph, that “there are some things that are too precious to be thrown on the mercy of the open market.” There is a recognition herein that the market presents perils and not at all, as the conventional wisdom dictates, simply the best means of delivery. In late February, the same newspaper published David Cameron’s vision that, “public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service.” Aren’t the health service and education “too precious” for the free market?

One argument for the success of the forest campaign was its ability to capture the imagination of the middle-classes, a scenario similarly visible in the growing traction behind efforts to stop closures of council libraries. Though middle-class support is a traditional feature of grassroots agitation, a resistance to policy in the highly symbolic instances of libraries and forests is evidence of a group content to define itself by piecemeal objection to the most offensive examples of government policy, rather than through the advance of a concerted political agenda.

Perhaps the most striking tenet of opposition was an evocation of ownership. A letter signed by a list of public figures talked passionately of “our forests” and “our national heritage”, the privatisation of which would be an “unconscionable” loss to future generations. A call to celebrate World Forest Day by the organisation Save our Forests demanded continued pressure to ensure the government’s complete cessation of any further plans to sell “our – the people’s – woodland”. Yet we are witnessing the preservation of only 18% of our forests under public ownership, and celebrating so enthusiastically the "people-power" that has ensured they will remain so for the time being. We have already become beggars for the crumbs at our own table.

It is this spectre of a natural and inviolable ownership of the forests that presents the most ambitious premise. Whereas any number of business concerns might be thought to rightly belong to the people, the most obvious comparison would seem to be the ownership of land itself, with or without significant numbers of trees upon it.

Which is, essentially, the largely-ignored concept central to domestic social-economy. One has to wonder whether the Archbishop of Canterbury (signatory to the aforementioned letter) would feel so spiritually generous in his regard for who has moral claim upon 120,000 rural acres owned by the Church of England, or the £19million made from the church’s sale of hundred-year leases on central London parking spaces. Elsewhere, Oxford University (est. circa 12th century) reported combined assets of £1.6 billion in 2004, including £55million-worth of residential and commercial property in Oxford. Cambridge University (est. 13th century) owns much of its host city in a largely confidential portfolio, and in 2009 spent £24million in adding a stake in the Millennium Dome/O2 Arena to its property holdings.

Most stunning of all, perhaps, is the 300 acres of London's Mayfair and Belgravia that 'belongs' to the Grosvenor Estate/Duke of Westminster, along with commercial properties and other rural holdings at home and abroad. The London estate is the backbone of the Grosvenor Group, and the current Duke of Westminster is the nation’s third-richest man, with an estimated value of nearly £7billion. The dated nature of such structures of land ownership is found in the parable of the Grosvenor Estate, dating back to 1677, when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies and inherited the lands of the latter. Mary Davies, at the time of the marriage, was 12 years old, and so the fortune can be traced back to what would today constitute an act of child abuse.

Down at the other end of the land spectrum, the average size of new dwellings in England total just 76 square-metres. The Netherlands manages 115 square-metres despite an extra 150 people per square kilometre of population density, and the notoriously squashed Japanese still manage to afford an average 92 square-metres.

A land value tax (LVT) could do much to redress these inequalities, based on the fact that, just as with forests, the land might legitimately be seen as a common asset of the nation. Whereas it takes a stretch of imagination to see what right a government has to tax revenue earned by endeavour or innovation, it is not inconceivable to suggest that land is one thing a state can lay legitimate claims upon. Vince Cable, speaking at last year’s Liberal Democrat party conference, talked of the progressive alternative of taxation based on property and land rather than income and profit, but it remains to be seen whether his words will prove more than easy sops to the party’s left, mooted well in advance of any election.   

What would be tragic, however, would be the caricature of LVT as a left-wing, socialist project, when the reality is a tax difficult to evade and cost-effective to collect. Still more important is that LVT fundamentally strengthens the principles of capitalism by removing a finite, illiquid and non-tradable asset such as property from the heart of an economic model. If capital can generate high returns from no more than buying a roof and charging for people to work or live beneath it, a disincentive is placed upon investment in innovation and genuine productivity, and it is no coincidence that property bubbles are found at the thin-end of most recessionary wedges. A continuing, two-decade stagnation in the Japanese economy can be traced back to 1991, when the Tokyo real estate market was worth approximately $21trillion, or twice the value of the combined stock exchanges of the world.

Accordingly, the archetypal free markets of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore already utilise a high proportion of LVT in their tax bases, all land in Hong Kong is leased from the state, and capital is thus diverted away from feudal tendencies and towards enterprise. On a social level, the argument for LVT sees house prices and rents decrease because it reduces the value of homes as commodities, this represents a more targeted help to the poor than most government welfare policies, and the best way of unlocking human capital from a bondage to exorbitant living-costs.

That 18% of England’s forests remain in public hands is a positive result, just as the urgency to defend an entitlement under threat was a welcome tonic. The legacy of the tussle, however, will be dictated by whether this claim upon the land is to be the beginning, or the culmination, of our ambition.

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