Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

November 16, 2011

Private property without private ownership

The land reform debate is being stirred in England by the prospect of a community right to buy being introduced. Our own right to buy legislation is up for review shortly. In this short blog by David Boyle at NEF, some interesting perspectives are shared on the future of land reform as he introduces a book which lays out the case for a radical alternative to our current system of property rights

David Boyle, NEF

Political disagreement about the provision of allotment gardens has a long and fraught history in the UK. But a new book might point the way forward.

The news that the government was thinking of repealing the Smallholdings and Allotments Act 1908, with its local authority duties to provide, has made me do a bit of reading on the politics of allotments in the Edwardian era.

What I found was a bitter battle, mostly within the Liberal Party at the time, between two different interpretations of land reform.  There were the re-distributists, like the redoubtable Jesse Collings – who coined the phrase ‘three acres and a cow’ – and there were the land tax enthusiasts.

The 1908 represented a victory for the land tax campaigners, supported by the new Labour MPs.  Collings condemned the bill when it came before parliament because it proposed to charge poor people for their smallholdings, rather than lending them the entire purchase price.

Collings wanted people to own small tracts of land.  He believed that was the way to revitalise agriculture.

“They say the land will not produce now,” he said, sounding like nef more than a century later.  “Has it lost its character?  Take one article: how is it we buy every year £5,000,000 worth of cheese from the foreigner?  Can England not produce this?  How is it we purchase from £12,000,000 to £14,000,000 worth of butter?  Is England not a butter producing country?”

He reintroduced his Purchase of Land Bill every year from 1895 until it was finally voted down with the help of Ramsay Macdonald, who – like his colleagues – disapproved of all land ownership, even by the poor.

We are still bedevilled with this radical disagreement.  Do we want to redistribute land, or are we against private property and prefer to tax it – and inevitably limit the access to land by the poorest?

There is a fascinating new book on the market which discusses these issues and puts forward what might be a middle way, by Julian Pratt, whose book The Stewardship Economy unpacks the issues and suggests some ways forward.

Julian is well-known as part of the team that developed a Whole Systems Approach to participation in the NHS, first at the King’s Fund and then at the LSE.  He says he became interested in these issues working in a hospital in apartheid South Africa in the 1970s.

I might quibble with some of his solutions, especially the idea of a 100 per cent land tax, but the book is an important contribution to the new economics, and I commend it.

To download a copy click here