Jonny Winbow discusses the urgent need for reformation around rules governing land owenership in the UK and proposes the idea of a landbank.
A study by The Guardian in April 2019 found that less than 1% of the population own more than half of land in England . This fact is astonishing considering the high levels of deprivation and the increased lack of social housing across the country. Despite this, little has been done by recent governments of both Conservatives and Labour. In 1990, Labour introduced provisions of compulsory registration on the Land Registry; meaning that it was compulsory to register land if a sale had been made in recent years. Since then, only minor adjustments have been made in the way we register land in England, leaving the land market un-regulated and subject to exploitative market players. In my view, it is therefore time to have a full realignment of the land market in England; with reformations to both the land registry and creation of a ‘Land Bank’ which would bring land in England under the state’s control.
Firstly, a reformation of the Land Registry is desperately needed, with a full overhaul of the system and the creation of a new register. This register would be both free for public use – it costs £3 per search on the current model – and would be completely transparent. This would mean all land that is currently unregistered across England would have to be made public, and the creation of an independent England Land Commission would be created to have broad oversight of these changes.
This independent commission – taken from a cross-party group of MPs who have knowledge and experience in these areas – would also have the power to limit the amount of land one person or company may own in England. This would allow a fair distribution of land, with excess land falling under the control of local councils who would have the ability to build social housing on this land, or re-forest it, depending on the needs of their local communities which they represent. This would either allow affordable social housing to be built in areas that are deprived of the land to do so and would also allow those areas with excess land to contribute to the fight against the current Climate Crisis through the creation of artificial forests. The Commission could also have the power to introduce specific dispensations for landowners who agree to re-forest their areas or build affordable social housing – allowing landowners to integrate themselves better into the community and support local councils.
A more radical approach to the land ownership issue in England would be the creation of a ‘Land Bank’. This bank would be similar to the Bank of England – created to fund a government effort in case of war/emergency – and would be brought under the oversight of the Communities and Local Government Committee in Parliament. Currently, 12% of land in the UK is owned by 50 companies/people. If this land was brought under public ownership, then it could accommodate approximately 330 million homes. The creation of a Landbank would allow a Committee to review the land ownership in England and bring those with excessive amounts of land that aren’t being used for public good under a public ownership scheme. This would allow councils and local community groups to get first say on the purchasing of these lands, for the purpose of reforestation or the building of housing. An increase of funding would be given to these community groups or councils for this purpose by the central government so that this can be paid for. An independent review every 12 months could increase or decrease the amount of land one person/company is allowed to own and the purpose of land ownership - in line with the needs of the country. This would be a similar approach taken by the Scottish Land Commission, whose work safeguards the public interest f and ownership by seeking a reason as to why land is purchased in Scotland – allowing a greater level of accountability and oversight on landowners.
Just as the bank of England was brought under public ownership in 1946 in the aftermath of the post-WW2 crisis in Britain, this current crisis of land ownership needs to be addressed by a publicly owned ‘Landbank’ to address the problems of today.
Jonny Winbow is a 20-year-old social sciences student at the University of Manchester. LGBTQ+ activist and High Peak CLP Youth Officer.
He tweets at @jonnywinbow