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A Citizen's Guide to

Land Ownership in the UK


In the week that the ConDem Government have decided to withdraw from the management of England's forests and ancient woodlands it seems an apposite time to consider 'who owns the land' of the UK.

Defra knows who owns what because you get no subsidy if you can't demonstrate some rights of ownership, but it's not data that's shared with the public.


Some things all citizens should know

90% of us live on less than 10% of the land, which might explain the stupid price people pay for a home. The myriad restrictions placed on green site development also play a major part in house price inflation.

Britain’s 16.8 million homeowners account for barely 4 per cent of the land, about the same as was owned by the Forestry Commission, until Blair's spivs started the sell off. The FC now manages about 1%.

The Land Registry, in existence since 1925, has managed to register only half of the UK's 60 million acres, 30 million acres seem to have disappeared. The Land Registry is hoping to persuade the owners of the unregistered half of Britain to own up by 2012 — its target date for full registration.

A second 'Domesday Book’ report was submitted to Parliament in 1876. Investigating land ownership, author, Kevin Cahill, asked the Royal Agricultural Society if they had a copy, they denied all knowledge. Next, Cahill approached The Country Landowners Association, they acknowledged owning a copy but said get lost. Might have had something to do with the fact that the 30,000 members of the CLA own 50% of the rural land in Britain.

The report, entitled The Return of Owners of Land, contains the names, addresses, acreages and valuations for all landowners of over one acre.

It also showed a complete absence of State or corporate ownership. Seven of the 11 largest landowners in modern Britain did not exist 100 years ago, and all, such as the National Trust, are corporate estates. The key change is from family estates into corporate estates.

The document disappeared from the public's gaze for a 126 years, until the canny Cahill published its details.

Land owners are an unhelpful lot

Clearly, the landed gentry of 1876 were not happy for their land holdings to be public knowledge and they still don't. For instance, everyone knows that the Duke of Westminster (aka Hugh Grosvenor) owns a large slice of Mayfair and Belgravia and half of England and Scotland but only the Grosvenor Group knows how much land he owns. Cunning Hugh is now a corporate, with a property portfolio spanning the globe.

The Duke of Wellington: back in 1872, is registered as owning 15,800 acres. Today the Land Registry has no record of his holding. The BBC asked the current duke how much land he owned. He declined to tell.

Great land grabs of the past

Most of the big private estates can be traced to appropriations and handouts from the reigning monarch in bygone days, and more recently through purchases by those who had made money through large-scale theft in other ways.

The ‘first great land grab’ came with the Norman Conquest when William donated the lands acquired to himself and his brigands.

The second came when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and distributed their 10 million acres to those followers and barons willing to accept the new Church, now free from domination by Rome, and impose it in their local areas.

Thirdly, some major redistributions and awards of land according to political allegiances took place during Cromwell’s rule and following the Restoration.

Private ownership of land in Britain was consolidated further between 1700 and 1900 when common land used for grazing was incorporated into private estates through the various Enclosure Acts pushed through Parliament by the big landowners themselves or their representatives.

All of this settled the ownership of Britain’s land through to the present time.

There once existed a classic divide in land between crown, church and aristocracy. Each traditionally owned around a third of all British land. Over the centuries church land has dropped down to just 1%. The crown is now reckoned to own just 1% of Britain too. Only the aristocracy has maintained its slice of national land.


The Royal Land Holdings

Interpreting exactly how much land The Queen does, or does not, actually own is complicated. If we take The Crown Estate (including Windsor) and the uniquely organised Duchy of Lancaster out of the equation, you are left with the following estates that are, technically,

The Queen's private property:

* Balmoral and Birkhall (formerly home to the Queen Mother, now used by Prince Charles) comprising just over 46,000 acres on Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire

* Delnadamph, a separate 8,000-acre estate in Aberdeenshire

* Sandringham, just under 20,000 acres in Norfolk

Total: 74,000 acres

The Duchy of Lancaster

Founded in the 13th century, the Duchy of Lancaster is an unusual anomaly in that it is a unique portfolio of land, property and assets, which is held in trust for the sovereign in his or her role as Duke of Lancaster. Now running to 46,456 acres - largely in the north of England, but with some highly lucrative land in London - the Duchy also comprises a further 123,553 acres of foreshore between the centre point of the River Mersey and Barrow-in-Furness. Although The Queen, who is the present Duke of Lancaster, receives revenues from the estate, the actual freeholder of the land is not clearly known.

The Crown Estate owns 55% of the UK's foreshore-and the entire seabed out to the 12 nautical miles limit (some 23.6 million acres) although much of the coastal land is leased to third parties, such as local authorities and Natural England. Bodies such as the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, local groups, port authorities, statutory bodies and Government agencies own the other 45%, together with:

* The Church Commissioners in Durham

* The Duke of Beaufort in the Severn Estuary

* The Beaulieu Estate on the River Beaulieu

In addition, The Crown Estate does not generally own the foreshore around the coastline of Cornwall, Sutherland and the Shetland Isles.

Forestry Commission Sell Off

Of the 60,032,000 acres in Britain the Forestry Commission currently owns about 620,000 (1% of the country). The government has already got plans in place to sell 15% of the Forestry Commission holdings for £100 million with a proposal to sell off the other 85%.

The fears of the sell off are that the forests will be destroyed for profit and that the land will no longer be accessible to the people.


Feb. 17th 2011

Plans to sell 40,000 acres of state-owned woodland in England have been abandoned.

But there is still an intention to sell off around 15% of the original 40,000 acres. They are just going to be a bit quieter about it.


So what do we know about land ownership in Britain?

According to Country Life Magazine a wealthy core of just 1,200 aristocrats and their relatives own 20 million acres of the country. The top ten individual biggest owners control a staggering total of more than a million acres between them. Prince Charles, for instance, who as Duke of Cornwall, is taking rent from his 145,700 acres - nice.

The Land Registry doesn't have a clue who owns what. The compulsory deadline for registration will not reveal who owns what because these deadlines were first introduce in 1909 and it took a hundred years to gain information about only half of Britain's land. The fact is that if land has not changed hands for a long time then the Land Registry doesn't know it exists and owners will not volunteer the information.

The picture on land ownership is complicated not merely by secretive aristocrats but also by corporate wheeling and dealing. How much land is owned by the corporates is not known, also the extent of foreign ownership is not known.

We're all doomed Mr Mainwaring, the country may have already fallen into enemy hands


Worth reading....

Kevin Cahill 'Who Owns Britain' (Canongate, 2001)

What's a Subsidy dad?

It's a payment made to land owners by the authorities to owners for growing too much of something or not growing anything at all son. Or put another way, it's taxpayers in overcrowded towns giving money to people who live in nice country estates.


The British Empire, the largest the world had ever known, used a mere 165,000 acres of the country to house and train its entire military force. Compare that with the current holdings of the Ministry of Defence, which are 592,800 acres in the UK and 250,000 leased acres in Canada.

Deep Irony

Only in Scotland has there been any measure of real land reform. Crofters are now allowed to buy their freeholds at a reasonable price. The Duke of Buccleuch, Scotland’s biggest landowner with nearly 300,000 acres, calls this “shameless, legalised theft”.

Great Families

Three 'great' aristocratic families (the Howard de Waldens, the Portmans and the Cadogans) acquired huge swathes of London’s West End.

The Leasehold Reform Act 1993 is worrying the great families. Tenants with longer leases are now able to buy the freeholds. The Duke of Westminster was so outraged by this attack on his land that he resigned the Tory whip in the House of Lords in protest.