Who owns England? Behind this simple question lies England’s oldest and best-kept secret. It’s a secret that goes back to the Domesday Book – and an issue that goes to the heart of many of the biggest problems we face as a country.
Our expert guide investigates the history of land ownership in England, including how much is owned privately today.
What are the implications of land ownership for society?
Who owns land and how they use it has implications for almost everything: the affordability of housing, the way we grow our food, how much space we leave aside for nature. Land is inherently scarce – as Mark Twain once said, “buy land: they’re not making it anymore” – and in England, its scarcity has made it so sought-after that land values have increased fivefold since 1995, according to the Office for National Statistics. The housing crisis hasn’t been caused by a sudden rise in the price of bricks and mortar, but rather in the value of the land on which homes are built.
Rural landowners, meanwhile, are rewarded by the taxpayer for simply owning land through our system of farm subsidies. The Common Agricultural Policy has paid landowners according to the area of land they farm, rather than the public goods they deliver, thereby propping up a system of intensive agriculture that has decimated our wildlife and natural habitats. Land ownership has shaped the public’s access to the countryside for centuries, and though recent decades have seen more of it opened up to ramblers and cyclists, the law of trespass still prevails over vast swathes of England, so that walkers are still greeted by a profusion of ‘Keep Out: Private Property’ signs.
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How to find out who owns land
I first got interested in trying to find out who owned England when I realised how fiendishly difficult it was to answer such a simple question. What was there to hide, I wondered? A government body dedicated to recording land ownership, the Land Registry, has existed since 1862, yet 157 years later, it’s still not finished the job: 17% of land remains unregistered, the landowners mysteriously declining to reveal themselves. For everything else, the Land Registry charges you £3 to find out who owns a single field or property – and with 24 million land titles in the country, buying the lot would set you back a cool £72 million. Since I didn’t have this cash to spare, my investigations into who owns England have made much use of Freedom of Information requests, estate maps and other work-arounds, plus close collaboration with others interested in this issue, particularly data journalist and computer programmer Anna Powell-Smith.
King William’s legacy – what is the history of land ownership in the England?
It seems there’s a bit of a taboo around discussing land ownership in England: it’s deemed impolite, the ‘politics of envy’. Yet other countries don’t get so hung up about it. New Zealand, Denmark and the US state of Montana, among others, have all published their maps of land ownership online: why not us?
The answer, I think, lies deep in our history. Land has always conferred wealth and power, and concealing wealth is part and parcel of preserving it. Large landowners have built high walls around their estates to keep out prying eyes, and resisted efforts by successive governments to reveal quite how much they own. And down through the centuries, from the Norman Conquest to today, land has remained concentrated in the hands of an extraordinarily small elite. Quite how small, I discovered when investigating who owned the county I grew up in, West Berkshire, almost half of which is owned by just 30 landowners. The area’s single largest landowner is its MP, Richard Benyon.
The history of England’s land ownership
1066 Norman Conquest
William the Conqueror (right) declares all land belongs to the Crown, and parcels it out to barons and the Church, while keeping an estate for the monarchy. Twenty years later, the Domesday Book forms the first record of land ownership in England, and the only one for the next 800 years.
1500s–1914 Enclosure of the commons
Land used by commoners for grazing and subsistence once covered around 30% of England, but its enclosure by the aristocracy and gentry reduced it to just 3% of the country today.
1649 Aftermath of Civil War
In the aftermath of the Civil War and execution of King Charles I, the Diggers movement, led by Gerard Winstanley, aimed to overturn ideas about the private ownership of land, declaring the Earth to be a “common treasury for all”.
1873 The Victorians’ ‘Second Domesday’
The Return of Owners of Land, reveals that 4,000 lords and gents own half of England, sparking calls for land reform.
Late 1800s – early 1900s Statutory right for food growing
Land reformers bring in legislation that creates statutory right to an allotment for growing food, and sets up the first County Farms to help smallholders into farming. First council houses built.
1919 Timber shortage
Foundation of the Forestry Commission, after the First World War causes a timber shortage. War and rise of the modern state leads to military acquiring large swathes of land for training and weapons testing.
1947 Establishment of modern planning system nationalises development rights over land.
For 20 years after the Second World War, councils are allowed to buy land cheaply, sparking the boom in council-house building (right), but landowners succeed in changing land compensation rules.
1979 Publicly owned land starts to be sold off
Start of the great sell-off of publicly owned land under successive governments.
You can access some land across England without having to use paths – this land is known as ‘open access land’ or ‘access land’.
Access land includes mountains, moors, heaths and downs that are privately owned. It also includes common land registered with the local council and some land around the England Coast Path.
2000 Right to Roam
Countryside and Rights of Way Act creates a partial Right to Roam over around 10% of England and Wales, mostly in uplands and around coasts.
2003 Right to Roam across Scotland and Community Right to Buy
First Scottish Land Reform Act creates a full Right to Roam across Scotland and brings in Community Right to Buy, enabling many communities to buy back land from absentee landowners.
2003 Peak home ownership
Home ownership levels hit a peak, with 71% of homes in England owned outright or with a mortgage, before going into decline. Start of the present housing crisis; rise of ‘generation rent’.
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Who owns England?
But it’s not just the Home Counties where land lies in the hands of a few. Just over 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of central London’s super-prime real estate belongs to the Crown, the Church, and four wealthy aristocratic estates. Over 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of the English uplands are tied up in huge grouse-moor estates owned by around 150 people. The Duke of Northumberland, whose family lineage stretches back to Domesday, owns 40,468 hectares (100,000 acres) – a tenth of his home county.
A handy chart showing the division of land ownership in England. Farmers are represented in most sectors – either as direct landowners (gentry) or tenants of
the aristocracy, new money, conservation charities and others.
Indeed, many of the largest landowners in the country today owe their standing to decisions made by the Norman king William almost 1,000 years ago. After conquering England, William declared all land belonged ultimately to him, before parcelling it out to his cronies: his barons and his allies in the Church.
While the Church would have some of its land later seized by Henry VIII, and frittered more of it away through poor accounting, the aristocracy kept hold of their slice of the cake. When the Victorians ordered a rare census of landowners, they found that just 4,000 lords and gents owned half the country. By my reckoning, the aristocracy and gentry still own roughly 30% of England today. As the Duke of Westminster once said, when asked for advice for young entrepreneurs: “Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror”.
Since the industrial revolution, aristocratic families have been joined by successive waves of newly moneyed landowners. In the Edwardian period, industrialists who had made it often acquired land and titles in order to join the ranks of the upper crust; the beer-making Guinness family became the Earls of Iveagh and Lords of the 8,093-hectare (20,000-acre) Elveden Estate. Recent decades have seen Saudi princes and Russian oligarchs buy into London real estate and English country houses off the back of oil wealth and the sell-off of Soviet state enterprises.
Corporations, too, have become major landowners in modern times – Land Registry data shows they now own around 18% of England and Wales. Some of the largest corporate landowners are household names, such as Tesco and BT. Others are more mysterious, such as Peel Estates, a property and retail conglomerate that owns swathes of Manchester, or the Badgworthy Land Company, which possesses a large chunk of Exmoor for shooting pheasants. Still others cloak their ultimate owners through complex corporate structures, registered in offshore tax havens.
The State became a significant landowner in the 20th century in the wake of the First World War. A timber crisis caused by demand for wooden pit props and trench boards led to the creation of the Forestry Commission, sending serried ranks of Sitka spruce marching over many a hill. The need for army training grounds led the British military to acquire much land, sometimes through requisitioning, and often in secret. You’ve heard of the MOD’s firing ranges on Salisbury Plain, but did you know it also owns a military island off the coast of Essex, where the atomic weapons programme began?
Warfare drove much of the government’s acquisition of land to begin with, but later, so did public welfare. After the Second World War, the creation of the modern planning system modified landowners’ rights to build on their land, while councils were empowered to buy land cheaply, sparking a boom in council- house building. But recent decades have seen a great sell-off of public land, from council homes being sold under Right to Buy, to the privatisation of water companies and the railways. County Farms, set up by councils to help young farmers get into agriculture, have halved in extent since the late 1970s.
Who owns what?
The Crown Estate owns London’s Regent Street, including the freehold for Apple’s flagship UK store, from which the Crown collects more rent than from all its agricultural land.
The Duke of Westminster’s trusts own Abbeystead Estate in Lancashire, a huge grouse moor that covers much of the Forest of Bowland.
The National Trust owns around a fifth of the Lake District National Park in Cumbria.
The Duchy of Cornwall owns London’s Oval Cricket Ground, Maiden Castle in Dorset (above) and Ham Hill in Somerset.
Paternoster Square in the City of London, home of the London Stock Exchange, is owned by the Church Commissioners.
Who owns the Houses of Parliament?
The monarch was excluded from entering the House of Commons after the Civil War, but the Crown still owns the freehold; it’s the site of the old Palace of Westminster after all.
A call for land reform debate
Politicians have sometimes claimed that we live in a property-owning democracy. But though there’s been a big increase in the number of people owning homes in the past century, homeowners own just 5% of England, and home ownership has been in decline since 2003. My investigations have led me to conclude that –
by contrast – an elite of less than 1% of the population owns half of England. A few thousand dukes, baronets and City bankers own far more land than all of Middle England put together.
It’s time we had a serious debate about land reform in England. Scotland has been having one for the past 20 years, since devolution, in which time it has given communities the right to buy back land from absentee landowners, and established a full Right to Roam across all uncultivated land. Many housing experts are starting to recommend that councils should be allowed to buy land cheaply again, like they could for a while after the Second World War, as a way to resolve the present housing crisis.
Most fundamentally, surely the time has come to draw back the cloak of secrecy that has shrouded land ownership in England. It’s high time the Government opened up the Land Registry, forced it to complete its founding mission, and told us who owns England.
Guy Shrubsole is a campaigner and investigator at Friends of the Earth. His book Who Owns England? published by William Collins, is out now.