Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

The New Enclosure – The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain 

Chistophers, B. The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain. (Verso Books, 2019).

The word enclosure in the title of this book drew me in as soon as I laid eyes on it. Back in 1981 when I was a fresh-faced zoology undergraduate, I bought the recently published book The Theft of the Countryside by Marion Shoard. It was an eye opening read and brought home to me the entanglement of politics and conservation. But the thing which stayed with me most over the years was her account of the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries. The injustice and lasting legacy of the enclosures by which the landowning class excluded the rural poor from the land – overturning centuries of established land use rights – has burned in my breast ever since.

So the word enclosure was guaranteed to pique my interest in this equally blood stirring book by Brett Christophers. The subject of his book, as the subtitle succinctly summarises, is the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain. As such it concentrates on the period after Thatcher’s Conservative election victory in 1979, since when neoliberalism has been the dominant political paradigm in the UK. Christophers rightly describes the program of privatisation of public land since 1979 as a neoliberal project. Although the pace and nature of this project changed during the Labour Party’s tenure from 1997-2010, it by no means ended and was still there to be re-energised by the incoming Conservative administration in 2010. As Christophers makes very clear, the project is still alive and kicking today: the appropriation of public land continues apace. The book covers:

  • what public land has been (and is being) privatised;
  • why it happens;
  • how it happens; and
  • what the consequences are.

That Christophers – and others credited by him – have been able to document the extent of the transfer of public land into private hands at all is a credit to their tenacity and scholarship since the whole subject of land ownership in the UK is deliberately hidden from public scrutiny. This applies at least as much to the privatisation of public land: records are often not kept, lost or otherwise inaccessible. Why? Possibly because if the extent of the transfer of public land into private ownership and the fate of that land afterwards were more widely understood, the public would simply not stand for it and that would scupper the project.

The neoliberal project of land privatisation is about power: landownership and power are tightly coupled. Land in public ownership belongs to us all and although it does not by itself confer public benefit, it does provide many opportunities to realise public benefit if used in the right way. And through the democratic process we can all exercise some control over the use and management of public land. Once public land is privatised, the public loses any putative power to exercise control over it. Profit – the accumulation of wealth – is virtually the sole motive of those acquiring public land. At its core the neoliberal project of land privatisation is about concentrating power (and wealth) into fewer hands.

An aspect of land privatisation that Cristophers goes into in some detail concerns the politically and socially charged subject of housing. One of the most trumpeted elements of privatisation was the so called Right to Buy – a policy often cited by its proponents as a privatisation that benefits the poorer sectors of society, but Christophers presents many statistics that contradict that viewpoint. For example many people who bought their council houses went on to sell them to private landlords and in 2017 40% of all council flats sold under Right to Buy in England were owned by private landlords. The tenants in those flats now paid their rent to private (sometimes unscrupulous) landlords, for the sole benefit of the landlords, whereas before the tenants paid rent to councils where it went into the public purse, for the public good. The neoliberal project of land privatisation has been nothing short of a bonanza for the rentier class.

There is plenty like this in The New Enclosure to make your blood boil, but if all else fails then surely the story of land for new housing will do the trick. The pressure from central government on local authorities to release ‘surplus public land’ for new houses, especially desperately needed social housing, has in many cases resulted in that land ending up in the land banks of private house building companies. These land banks are believed to hold enough land to provide all of our current housing needs (believed because they are not forced to disclose their entire holdings). So why aren’t the houses being built? The fact is that house builders can generate greater profits if they drip-feed the housing market and ensure that the demand always greatly outstrips supplies. Under these circumstances they can also generate much higher profits by building luxury rather than social housing. Financial trading and speculation around these hoarded land banks is also rife: some ‘house building’ companies actually make more money by speculating on their land banks than they do on building houses. Blood boiling yet?

The long and the short of it is that the raison d’etre of public land is to provide public goods, but when that land is privatised its raison d’etre is to generate private profit. Neoliberalism will tell you that the latter facilitates the former, but after 40 years of the privatisation of public land, where is the evidence for that? You will find little of it in The New Enclosure, but plenty of well-researched evidence to the contrary.