Privatisation is the theme of the post-Thatcher era and key to understanding it is the attack on state assets, such as rail, post, coal and power, and on land ownership. The overt privatisation of public land that began in the 19th and 20th centuries is, the author states, the defining feature of the post-1979 era. Land ownership infers power: it shapes ecology, access to aquifers, fracking and more.
Public ownership of land doesn’t necessarily infer rights for the public, but at least it allows the possibility of a say in its use and access. Brett Christophers repeatedly compares the current privatisation trajectory with the enclosures of the mid-1800s, when peasants were forced from the land and deprived of the means of subsistence.
The book’s daunting title is clearly explained in the introduction, as are key terms and its parameters. The history of land ownership in Britain, the process by which local authorities acquired large amounts of land, the legislative changes that made this possible, and the subsequent removal of such powers relating to the purchase, sale and taxation of land are explored.
The author makes a very clear case for linking the privatisation of public land to austerity, and to the language of austerity. Since the late 1970s the use of the term “surplus” in relation to land and property has increased many fold. Successive governments have insisted that surplus local authority land and property must be “released” (sold) to allow the more efficient private sector to create much-needed affordable housing that the wasteful public sector can’t provide. The surplus they abhor is itself created by austerity politics. If care home funding is cut, thus reducing the number of beds and homes available, the newly closed surplus buildings and land can be sold to the highest bidder.
A local community group’s bid for the ex-Holloway Prison site (which included plans for green space, truly affordable homes and community facilities) didn’t get a look in when the Ministry of Justice recently sold it to the highest bidder — a private housing company.
This year Knowsley council in Merseyside will cease funding 17 parks and green spaces, and sell this public space to developers for around £40 million.
Most councils are not selling their land, or investing in large scale commercial enterprises like shopping centres, because they want to. For most, it is the only feasible way to create capital to enable them to maintain services that are being cut to the bone by central government’s austerity.
The author clearly, if sometimes densely, explains what has been privatised, how it happened and the fact that there remains an area the size of Wales (2.2 million hectares) of public land left to save.
Land is a finite commodity and its owners have power. We must fight to keep what’s left in public ownership because, once it’s been sold, it is unlikely to be returned until we achieve a significantly different society to the one we currently live in.