Good morning from New Economy Brief.
This morning, The Crown Estate, one of the UK's largest landowners, releases its annual report. Who owns land and how they use it is at the heart of some of the most pressing policy issues of our time. Any serious attempt to improve problems like the housing crisis, food shortages, climate change and inequality require changes to how land is used. Land ownership is a key issue which often goes underexplored. This week, we take a deep dive into the question of who actually owns land in the UK, the economic and political consequences of this, and what can be done about it.
Who owns land? The answer to this question - at least in a UK setting - has been described as “one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the thousand-year-old history of this country”. The Who Owns England? project, run by Guy Shrubsole and Anna Powell-Smith, attempts to solve this very mystery. Through the use of public maps and data released through the Freedom of Information Act, it finds that half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. The aristocracy and gentry alone own 30%. That’s significantly more than the amount of English land owned by the public sector, homeowners, conservation charities, the Royal Family and the Church of England put together (a total of 17.4%). After the aristocracy and gentry, corporations are the second largest landowning group, with an 18% share of English land. Oligarchs and City bankers own 17%. Crown estates and the royal family own considerably less than these groups, however their land share of 1.4% still results in increasingly large revenues for royal family members. For example, King Charles and the late Queen Elizabeth II have received total payments equivalent to more than £1 billion from the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. The profits made from the farmland, hotels, medieval castles, offices, shops and real estate owned by the royal family have increased substantially since the beginning of the late Queen’s reign.
Politics, policies and rentierism. One of the most direct consequences of concentrated land ownership in the UK is housing. Landowners can often decide where homes are built and can earn rents from them. Home ownership should in theory allow people to achieve a degree of financial independence and security. It’s no wonder then, that the promise of home ownership plays a central role in British politics. It is often accepted (though increasingly questioned) that home owners generally vote Conservative. Meanwhile, the Labour Party says it wants to be the party of home ownership. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Shifts in fiscal policy during the second half of the twentieth century saw the state’s involvement in housing move from the provision of social housing to the promotion and subsidisation of home ownership. While social housing still exists, provision remains 25% less than in 1979. Home ownership is promoted as the ultimate aspiration, offering security and longevity to voters. Policies like Right to Buy provide the hope of financial independence - an opportunity to have an economic stake in a political system in which state provision of security is not guaranteed.
So what do we do about it?
Now what? The political incentive to offer security feels increasingly important. Recent geopolitical events have turned the issue of renewable energy into one of economic security. The cost of living crisis too has shone a light on just how many of us are financially insecure. The Labour Party clearly sees the need to appeal to the nation’s desire for security with its new language of ‘Securonomics’. Of course, there are plenty of examples of where security can be offered without the promise of home ownership. In theory, social housing and social security can provide this. But no matter what kind of homes people live in, who owns land will always be politically significant. The concentration of land ownership has implications for what we eat, our natural environment, our climate and whether more homes can even be built in the first place. Inequality in land ownership sits at the intersection of so many challenges we face. We have set out above how policies do exist to shift away from the current imbalance, whether the political will to do so exists is another question.
OBR Summer 2023 review of the supply-side effects of policies. The OBR are reviewing their approach to assessing the supply-side impacts of government policy. They are looking for views on when they should incorporate supply-side effects from government policies in their forecasts, how they have applied their methodology in previous forecasts, when and how they should adjust their potential output forecast in response to policies that affect labour supply, the ‘economy-wide stock of capital’, total factor productivity, and any other things they should take into account when considering the supply-side impact of government policy. (Response deadline: 14 July 2023.)
Labour’s plan to ‘ramp up’ to £28bn p/yr Green Prosperity Plan. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves clarified that Labour’s green investment plan would aim to ‘ramp up’ to £28bn a year “in the second half of the parliament at the latest” rather than from day one of a Labour government, in what many have been describing as a watering down of their green investment spending pledges. Reeves argued that this is necessary to “make sure there is time to build the supply chains we need, skill our workforce, and ensure the taxpayer gets value for money.”
The politics of fiscal rules. Commenting on the wider politics within the shadow cabinet between ministers arguing that the funding for Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan just privilege green investments, but other needed forms of capital investment such as housing or transport infrastructure, Oxford professor Simon-Wren Lewis explains why Labour should not use a fiscal rule that targets a cap on the level of public investment, because it unnecessarily rations the amount of public investment available for growth: “without such a cap, if an investment project generates a good social rate of return it should be funded in its own right, and there is no need to reduce other forms of public investment to make way for it.” Simon Fletcher has written more on the politics of Labour’s green investment plans clashing with their fiscal rules on his Substack.
Tax and UK imperialism. Tax Justice Network’s Alex Cobham discusses the UK’s past and continuing role in imperial extraction and tax abuse in an article for Discover Society. He outlines “the case for the UK to end its global role in tax abuse” and argues that the government “must take responsibility for the vulnerability of dependent territories whose people suffer a more intense dependency on an exploitative financial sector than even the UK itself.”
Housing inequality and the ‘new age of inheritance’. Demos’ Dan Goss explains in a blog post for Positive Money how the ‘new age of inheritance’ will widen housing inequality in the UK, as the children of homeowners inherit property (which will continue to rise in value) and the children of renters find it harder to afford home ownership. (Tax campaigner Paul Hebden gives some helpful messaging tips for defenders of inheritance tax in a Twitter thread.)
Fair Tax Nation. The Fair Tax Foundation have released a report analysing new polling of UK attitudes to corporate tax conduct, finding “An overwhelming majority of the public” believe that “multinational businesses should be forced to disclose how much income, profit and tax they pay in each country in which they operate” and more. The report has been launched on the eve of Fair Tax Week, where the Fair Tax Foundation are hosting some online and in person events.
A comprehensive plan for decent, affordable, green public transport. The TUC and transport unions, ASLEF, RMT, Unite and TSSA have released a report outlining the case for decent, affordable, green public transport. Their plan would cost £28.7bn per year (split between capital and operating costs) but they argue it would increase productivity by £52.1bn a year and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in public transport services and in the manufacturing and construction of vehicles and infrastructure, as well as helping reduce carbon emissions.
Fixing the health and care workforce. IPPR have released the final report of their Health and Care Workforce Assembly; a group of workers from across the NHS, social carers and unpaid carers tasked with defining a new vision for health and care work. IPPR have developed these principles into a 10-point policy plan for the future.