The subtitle of my most recent book is ‘Land, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. I used that phrase to draw attention to the central role that land plays in any economy. Although so many buy their food in supermarkets, a look at the countryside now, in the season of harvest, is a reminder of our total dependence on the land for our survival.
This raises questions about who has the right to own and control this land, which many libertarian philosophers have seen as a ‘common wealth’. Yet rather than asking large landowners to pay for the privilege of their access to land, we transfer money to them via EU farm subsidies; and the larger their farms, the more they receive. During the latest round of changes to the Common Agricultural Policy system, this government ensured that many smallholders were actually prevented from claiming subsidies. At the same time, it abolished the Agricultural Wages Board, responsible for ensuring decent rates of pay and conditions of employment.
As well as supporting large landowners, the ConDem government has allowed property developers to write our planning law. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is a disaster for the countryside. It throws away 60 years’ worth of environmental protections and interprets ‘sustainable development’ as unrestrained growth.
So what can we do to reclaim our land? The attempt to introduce a Land Value Tax by Caroline Lucas in the Commons and Jenny Jones in the Lords is a long-overdue first step towards ensuring that the benefits gained from land are shared fairly. Resistance to destructive planning applications is also still possible. In Stroud, we recently defeated a planning application in the Slad Valley, my council ward and former home to poet and novelist Laurie Lee, by proving the value local people placed on the landscape.
The land is ours. If the law respected this, the land would be better cared for and used to provide for our needs rather than generate profits for the few.