Sunday book review – Who Owns England? by Guy Shrubsole

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book and it hasn’t disappointed me – I recommend it.

I went to the book launch on Tuesday and drank red wine, met some friends and we all sang The Manchester Rambler which was fun. But I was keen to discover what Guy had found out and how.

When I was writing Inglorious I spent quite some time reading Kevin Cahill’s 2002 book, Who Owns Britain and Ireland. It’s difficult and expensive to get hold of but is an amazing piece of research. It’s the type of book which you get to look up some facts and end up reading for pleasure. There are lots of tables and dense research in Cahill’s book but some very pithy political comment too. It set out the difficulty of identifying who owns land in England where although we have a Land Registry, and now land which changes hands (through sales) has to be registered, any land that stays in the same hands, does not have to be registered. And lots of large estates existed about 130 years ago when a proper land register was compiled (the first since the Domesday Book) and haven’t changed hands since so don’t feature in the Land Registry unless voluntarily declared (which is rare).

So, I wondered, how had Guy got more information out of the system than had Cahill – and the answer is in the first chapter of this book, and it’s pretty simple once you know how. So, now I do.

This book is less encyclopaedic than Cahill’s and more wide-ranging as to subjects covered. Land is under our feet all the time – who owns the land where you are right now? Is it you? If not, do you know? The tenure of land opens up opportunities to earn more money and control other people’s lives to an amazing extent. Guy scampers through many of these issues quite brilliantly.

This is a very good read on a very important subject. And there’s a lot of delightful nosiness in it too. The British are a bit odd about land – overly secretive compared with others and that might be because it has been hanging around in the same hands, and under the same feet and the same control for centuries. It’s no surprise that the book ends with a discussion of land reform.

I came across quite a few familiar names. There was a clutch of names on page 21 of MPs who all spoke in favour of grouse shooting in the 2016 debate triggered by my e-petition to the Westminster Parliament; Benyon, Clifton-Brown, Drax and Bellingham – all land owners, all rich and three out of four Etonians.

There is a lot about nature and how the land is used, misused and abused in this book. But it is essentially about power. And that’s always interesting.

Who Owns England: how we lost our green and pleasant land and how we should take it back? by Guy Shrubsole is published by William Collins.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

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10 Replies to “Sunday book review – Who Owns England? by Guy Shrubsole”

  1. So it would seem a good idea if it were to be read by MPs (alongside other tomes like Inglorious) to understand how best to use public support in furtherance of laudable aims of public benefit from taxpayers money in terms of land-use in the countryside as well as wider environment. I wonder, were any present at the launch you attended Mark?

    The momentum for change is growing, in no small part down to the poor performance by the incumbents in Westminster. We need reform of more than just land ownership and use but in Parliament as well?

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  2. It's all too easy once you start digging into the background and foundations of dsg, without effort to slip into revolutionary thoughts. That's what happened to me about 10 years ago. I live in Scotland where the Green MSP Andy Wightman has opened and led the very live debate on land ownership and reform. That the SNP have been 'frit' about land reform is a disappointment.

    'Our' purpose is to remove the criminality from DGS, which of course may lead to its demise, and that should be the focus. If its possible we should keep land ownership as sn interesting aside during the immediate battle.

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    1. Agree about the 'frit' SNP – surely it's a vote winning no-brainer to set in place intensive land reform in order to begin reversing the social and ecological devastation of the Highland Clearances? Repopulate and rewild – where’s the SNP’s vision?

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  3. Whilst I take your point Bimbling, if all throughout history we had adopted that approach there would be far fewer on the electoral register. We'd still be sending children down the mines and tearing foxes to pieces (ooops, we are), but yes we should not question things and we should know our place(s) 😉

    Not sure where I said we should refocus any campaign against DGS? Mark provided a book review and recommended it to his readership, I made a comment, I didn't call for a revolution ....

    But do I read that you feel we accept the status quo funded through taxpayers money? As in landownership (including grouse moors) receiving public funds? I would prefer to see taxpayers money used for public benefit, not to perpetuate potential criminality on upland moors where Hen Harriers et. al. should be allowed to breed.

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  4. I wondered if you had read the review in the Sunday Times last Sunday by Max Hastings under the title "Angry and half-right"
    He seems to get off the point a bit referring to you Mark as having " impeccable leftist credentials but not celebrated for intellectual vigour" I thought that was unkind particularly as it wasn't your book, personally I'd rather somebody had hung a couple of crows on my gate. Also he gets confused as to your "crusade for the primacy of raptors at the expense of other avian species" ("kites,buzzards and hawks at the expense of songbirds") Presumably because a kite will eat a roadkill songbird if it's lucky enough to find one.
    Now I read it again I'm not sure whether the title refers to the author or the reviewer.
    keep up the good work.

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    1. It’s incredibly ironic, but unsurprising, that Max Hastings talks about ‘intellectual vigour’ whilst failing to understand basic ecological principles like predator/prey relationships. I’d point him in the direction of peer reviewed research, but I’m sure, like many of his colleagues, he’s ‘had enough’ of experts.

      Keep up the good work, Mark.

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      1. I suspect that Max Hastings accusing Mark of lacking ”intellectual rigour” is more about disliking his politics and still moreso about puffing up his own credentials in this respect than a fact based analysis of the Avery oeuvre.

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  5. Glad to see an english version of "Who Owns Scotland" [1981 John McEwen, updated by Andy Wightman in book form and online] coming out. I hope this will be a powerful tool for many down there..as it has been for us..not least in the wildlife crime investigating community...but we still have problems nailing down absentee ownership, particularly when covered up by offshore trusts and the like. There are many out there who dont want you to know who owns your own country.

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  6. Mine was an independent comment on Mark's blog not a reply to yours, which hadn't been posted when I wrote mine.

    I simply believe that we are very close to getting somewhere positive in dealing with the endemic criminality associated with DGS and there's a risk of 'scaring the horses' ie the public who are beginning to understand the issue of land use for grouse shooting, if there is a move to ferment revolution.

    I'm absolutely not saying we don't need land reform when for example a householder with a freehold has to pay the Duke of Northumberland a fee if they want to build an extension etc.

    It's bl**dy outrageous.

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