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Landfall

June 12, 2019 - 15:49 -- Admin

Our new report puts
forward transformative proposals for taking back control of the land.

By George Monbiot,
published in the Guardian 4th June 2019

What is
the most neglected issue in British politics? I would say land. Literally and
metaphorically, land underlies our lives, but its ownership and control have
been captured by a tiny number of people. The results include soaring
inequality and exclusion; the massive cost of renting or buying a decent home;
the collapse of wildlife and ecosystems; repeated financial crises and the loss
of public space. Yet for 70 years this crucial issue has scarcely featured in
political discussions.

Today, I hope, this changes, with the publication of the report to the Labour Party – Land for the Many – that I’ve written with six experts in the field. Our aim is to put this neglected issue where it belongs: at the heart of political debate and discussion.

Since
1995, land values in this country have risen 412%. Land now accounts for an astonishing 51% of the UK’s net worth. Why? In large part because successive
governments have used tax exemptions and other advantages to turn the ground
beneath our feet into a speculative money machine. A report published this week by Tax Justice UK reveals that, through owning
agricultural land, 261 rich families escaped £208m in inheritance tax in
2015-16. Because farmland is used as a tax shelter, farmers are being priced
out. In 2011, farmers bought 60% of the land on the market; by 2017 this had
fallen to 40%.

Worse still,
when planning permission is granted on agricultural land, its value can rise 250-fold. Though this jackpot was created by society,
the owner gets to keep most of it. We pay for this vast inflation in land
values through outrageous rents and mortgages. Capital gains tax is lower than income tax, and council tax is proportionately more expensive for the poor
than for the rich. As a result of such giveaways, and the amazing opacity of
the system, land in the UK has become a magnet for international criminals seeking to launder their money.

We pay for
these distortions every day. Homes have become so expensive not because the
price of bricks and mortar has risen, but because the land that underlies them
now accounts for 70% of their price. Twenty years ago, the average working family
needed to save for three years to afford a deposit. Today, it must save for 19 years. Life is even worse for renters. While
housing costs swallow 12% of average household incomes for people with
mortgages, renters pay 36%.

Because we
hear so little about the underlying issues, we blame the wrong causes for the
cost and scarcity of housing: immigration, population growth, the green belt,
red tape. In reality, the power of landowners and building companies, their tax
and financial advantages and the vast shift in bank lending towards the housing
sector have inflated prices so much that even a massive housebuilding programme
could not counteract them.

The same
forces are responsible for the loss of public space in cities, a right to roam
that covers only 10% of the land, the lack of provision for allotments and of
opportunities for new farmers, and the wholesale destruction of the living
world. Our report aims to confront these structural forces and take back
control of the fabric of the nation.

We
recommend that a Labour government should replace the council tax with a
progressive property tax, payable by owners, not tenants. Empty homes should
automatically be taxed at a higher rate. Inheritance tax should be replaced
with a lifetime gift tax. Capital gains tax on second homes and investment
properties should match or exceed the rates of income tax. Business rates
should be replaced with a land value tax, based on rental value. A 15% offshore
tax should be levied on properties owned through tax havens.

To
democratise development and planning, we want to create new public development
corporations. Alongside local authorities, they will assemble the land needed
for affordable homes and new communities. Builders would have to compete on
quality, rather than by amassing land banks. These public corporations would
use compulsory purchase to buy land at agricultural prices, rather than having
to pay through the nose for the uplift created by planning permission. This
could reduce the price of affordable homes in the south-east by 50%.

We propose
a community participation agency, to help people, rather than big companies,
become the driving force in creating local plans and influencing major
infrastructure. To ensure a wide range of voices is heard, we suggest a form of
jury service for plan-making. To represent children and the unborn, we would
like every local authority to appoint a future generations champion.

Councils
should have new duties to create parks, urban green spaces, wildlife refuges
and public amenities. We propose a new definition of public space, granting
citizens a legal right to use it, overturning the power of private landowners
in cities to stifle leisure, cultural events and protest.

We propose
much tighter rent and eviction controls, and an ambitious social housebuilding
programme. We also want to create new opportunities for people to design and
build their own homes, supported by a community right to buy of the kind that Scotland enjoys. Compulsory sale orders should be used to
bring vacant and derelict land onto the market, and community groups should
have first rights to buy it.

To help
stabilise land prices and make homes more affordable, we propose a new body,
called the Common Ground Trust. When people can’t afford to buy a home, they
can ask the trust to purchase the land that underlies it, while they pay only
for the bricks and mortar (about 30% of the cost). They then pay the trust a land
rent. Their overall housing costs are reduced, while the trust gradually
accumulates a pool of land that acts as a buffer against speculation, and
creates common ownership on a large scale.

We call
for a right to roam across all uncultivated land and waterways (except gardens
and similar limitations). We want to change the allotments act, to ensure that
no one needs wait for a plot for more than a year. We would like to use part of
the Land Registry’s vast surplus to help community land trusts buy rural land
for farming, forestry, conservation, rewilding and the protection of
catchments. We would like a new English land commission to decide whether to
make major farming and forestry decisions subject to planning permission, to
help arrest the environmental crisis. And we want to transform the public’s
right to know, by ensuring that all information about land ownership, subsidies
and planning is published freely as open data.

These proposals, we hope, will make the UK a more equal, inclusive and generous-spirited nation, characterised not by private enclosure and public squalor, but by private sufficiency and public luxury. Our land should work for the many, not just the few.

www.monbiot.com