But what was the biggest of these privatisations? Brett Christophers shows that it is the one that no-one has ever heard of - the privatisation of public land. He goes on to argue that this has had far reaching consequences that have big implications for society. Let's note the scale of this privatisation.
Since Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979, and continuing all the way to the present day, the state has been selling public land to the private sector. It has sold vast quantities - some 2 million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the entire British land mass.... my best estimate... is that, at today's prices, the land that has been sold is likely to be worth something in the order of £400 billion, or the equivalent of more than twelve RBSs [the bank privatised following it's government bailout in 2008].This staggering sell-off has gone almost unnoticed, even by those academics and activists who write and campaign about privatisation. This is surprising not simply because of the scale of the privatisation, but because, as Christophers points out, "one cannot grasp actually existing patterns of socioeconomic inequality without factoring in landownership." Owning land, grants a number of things onto the owner - income, usually in the form of rent is the most obvious, but Christophers argues, more importantly land ownership,
also confers a set of powers of much more far-reaching scope: namely, to play a meaningful part in shaping the economic, social and ecological development of communities, regions and even nations. This is not just a question of power, but also of privilege.It is not surprising then that even before the neo-liberal era began with Thatcher's election, the question of public land was already being discussed. Nor is it surprising that Thatcher and those who followed in her footsteps were keen to facilitate the selling off of land in order to grant that power and privilege to their wealthy friends in big-business.
The first section of Christophers book is a study of various attempts to understand land ownership in the context of capitalism. He draws heavily on the ideas of Karl Marx, Adam Smith and more recent authors like Karl Polanyi and David Harvey to explore this. One of his interesting conclusions is that public land is good for capitalism. He quotes Allen Scott who says, [public ownership of urban land is]... a collectively rational and necessary response within capitalism to the prevailing patter of fragmented, dispersed and privatised landownership... to ensure the achievement of he overriding capitalistic goal of unhindered expansion of the bases of commodity production". But neo-liberalism is anything but rational when looked at in wider context of society.
At the start of the Thatcher era, public landownership was at an all time high. The public sector, with organisations such as the Ministry of Defence or the Forestry Commission, owned "as much as a fifth of all British land." Sections of the civil service and the Tory Party had been sowing the ground for this moment. The concept of "surplus land" had been created, the idea that the public sector, particularly local government, had lots of land that was unused, and being hoarded. The very existence of this "surplus land" was holding society back and it should be freed up. The concept continues up until today. In 2014, the Tory MP Mark Prisk moaned that "the public sector is continuing to hoard surplus land and buildings".
But the consequence of the massive sell off of land is actually that the private sector has ended up being the real hoarders. To sweeten the sell-off of land (often done as part of wider privatisations such as railway or NHS sell offs) various governments have promised that the land will be used for house-building. The reality is that little has actually been used for this and much land remains held by private companies who are speculating in land, or getting improvements (like planning permission) so they can make a profitable sale even though nothing has been built.
The story of land privatisation is closely tied up with the story of the sell-off of council homes. Space precludes a detailed discussion of this here. But the sell-off of these homes to private business has ended up reducing the availability of housing for the poorest in society. One quoted report from December 2015 shows that "Britain's biggest house-builders owned enough land to build more than 600,000 new homes." Few of these are actually likely to be built as these companies build slowly to maximise profits by keeping demand, and hence prices, up.
Post 2008 austerity politics has made the situation worse. Governments have encouraged local authorities to sell off land to help pay for front-line services starved of cash (though they've only been able to do this explicitly since 2016). At the same time it is extremely difficult for LAs to buy land and use it for social needs because they are not on a level playing field with private sector, which as Christophers points out, is why golf courses cover ten times more land than local authorities.
Christophers concludes that the consequence of the self off of public land has been to help transform British society into a rentier economy, as well as increase "social dislocation" and business "land hoarding". A small number of multinationals and individuals have made vast amounts of money from this process. This is no surprise. If you turn public land into a commodity than the capitalists will treat it like one, and that never benefits the majority of society.
I didn't expect to be cheered by Brett Christophers book. It is yet another insight into how successive governments have destroyed wider society through prioritising the economic interests of big business. But I did find it a really insightful book that demonstrated exactly how thought through the strategy of privatisation was and how the selling off of assets like land has helped to create the disenfranchised, economically depressed and atomised societies of today. The solutions are less obvious, but surely will begin with a future government quickly reversing privatisations and clawing back the land and other resources that were sold off. That will not be an easy process as those corporations will want to hold on to the wealth they've taken from us. Brett Christophers book tells us exactly why reversing the "new enclosure" is an urgent and necessary task.
Shrubsole - Who Owns England?
Linklater - Owning the Earth
Klein - The Shock Doctrine
Jones - Chavs
Minton - Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City
Hanley - Estates: An Intimate History