Who Owns England? (Book review)

It has been quite a while since I shared a review of a book that is not directly related to international development.
But Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green & Pleasant Land & How To Take It Back makes for a great exception-especially as some readers may still be compiling their summer reading lists.

One of the reasons I enjoyed his book so much is that content and form align really well.
The topic of English landownership is timely and important and Shrubsole manages really well to take the more technical task of measuring land ownership across different ownership groups to the next level by presenting an engaging narrative full of small details and big numbers, woven into a text that combines research, journalism and activism very well.

Little has changed since the days of the Domesday Book
Right from the start we are reminded that the history of landownership is not simply about abstract, technical or physical transactions, but opens up deep-rooted questions about class, power and essentially a couple of hundred years of capitalism.
Especially for a global audience some of the idiosyncrasies of land ownership may seem quirky and very British indeed especially when inherited titles, unwritten rules and an idea of a Downton Abbey-esque benevolence of the upper class hide deep-rooted inequalities in plain sight.

At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, some 200 Norman barons owned half of England. Thanks to the miracle of trickle-down economics, that elite has expanded over time - so that a mere eight centuries later, half of England lay in the hands of 4,000 aristocrats and members of the gentry. (...) But throughout all this (aristocratic decline from the 1920s to the 1970s), the landed aristocracy survived to a far greater extent than is commonly realised. From the 1970s onwards, they were joined by a newly minted plutocracy who today are keeping up the landowning traditions of a territorial elite (p.269).
The ten chapters highlight the most important ownership groups and changes over time, from the Crown, church and old elites to new elites, the state and corporate capture.
Who Owns England?'s core strength is that it brings together many pieces of a puzzle, many vignettes of information that create a coherent, but also sobering mosaic about the inequalities of land ownership.
It is not really surprising that Conservative circles have very little interest in transparency-so even the researchers behind the book are only able to map
about 30% of land ownership based on public records.
The involvement of tax havens and offshore corporations, the fact that a surprising amount of land is kept as grouse moor for hunting or that regular home owners own very little of England (about 5%) underlines the intersectionality of historic, cultural, economic and environmental issues that hide behind the simple question of who owns England.

How to write a book that people actually want to read...
As I mentioned in my introduction, Who Owns England? is not a
development’ book and yet the underlying themes of inequality, neoliberalisation and the value of land for powerful stakeholders is not just of interest in the context of the UK.

Using new open data repositories, Freedom of Information requests, new GIS technologies, archival information, expert interviews and field visits, Shrubsole triangulates his topic really well.
So in addition to the actual content,
Who Owns England? is a really good example of how to share quantitative data and create a readable, intellectually stimulating narrative-something many academic monographs fail.

Another feature of the book I really liked is that there is no radical
off with their heads’ rhetoric; land ownership is subject to a political will to change offshore tax havens, push for a minimum amount of transparency and broader political reform-all of which have been proven not to be really desirable by powerful elites over centuries.

A good governance agenda for land ownership
The concluding chapter lists ten interesting starting points for changing some of the debates and create more sustainable structures-very much in line with the well-grounded research of the rest of the book. And once again, the interconnectedness of the agenda items for land reform may sound very familiar to activists, aid workers and #globaldev researchers:
More data transparency and openness, an overhaul of farming systems and subsidies, challenging feudal/gendered ownership structures, challenging corporate ownership, pushing for responsible public ownership rather than short-term income from selling land and increasing public participation in the discussions are certainly items from the
‘good governance’ agenda the aid industry has been working on as well.

Shrubsole’s book is not just an interesting case study of English history and contemporary conditions under the
neoliberal’ condition.
Questions about land ownership are playing an important role when we discuss sustainable development. After the initial excitement the debates on
land grabbing’ in the global South seem to have lost a little bit of momentum, but ownership of agricultural land, land for infrastructure developments or for a new middle class of home owners are not just discussion for the former imperial center…

Who Owns England is a real treat: A book that makes you smarter, leaves you puzzled and a bit angry, but also appreciative of the kind of investigation Shrubsole and his team have done over the years. Especially for us academics the book is also a very good example of how to present your research in an accessible and engaging way based on empirical evidence, qualitative vignettes and a bigger picture that is persistent to changes. 

Shrubsole, Guy: Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green & Pleasant Land & How To Take It Back. ISBN 978-0-00-832167-3, 376pp, 20.00 GBP, London: William Collins, 2019.


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