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Commons cause

Tom Hodgkinson

1st June 2009

Henry VIII’s land-grab robbed ordinary people of their commons – now a new campaign offers us the chance to take back what we’re owed.

Seventy per cent of the UK’s 60 million acres is owned by one per cent of the population – 6,000 individuals and companies. We need to grab the land back from these guys

It’s all about land. Over the past 500 years the revolutionary mission of the people has been to grab the land back again. If we have access to land then we have a space to grow food, a space to play in, a space to camp in. Land gives us a connection to nature, to soil, to the earth. It can heal us. It is freedom.

In the medieval land system, nearly everyone had access to land of some sort, whether it was common land or owned land or rented land. A measure of self-suficiency was thus available to the meanest peasant.

The world changed in 1535 when Henry VIII sacked the monasteries, the old church was ‘reformed’ and the new Protestant sect started to take over. This process was accompanied by a series of Acts of Enclosure, whereby previously common land was enclosed for the exclusive use of landowners. This is why so many so-called ‘commons’ today have a fence around them. Really, they should be genuine commons – that is to say, the locals should have the right to gather firewood from them and graze their animals on them.

In the 1930s, we had the idea of ‘Distributism’ being promoted by Catholic intellectuals such as GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. This was an excellent social philosophy that sought to share land more equally, and also encouraged a co-operative rather than a competitive system of trade and banking. Chesterton’s catchphrase was ‘three acres and a cow’.

In the UK today, while some of the ideas of Distributism made their way into anti-trust laws, land is less widely shared than ever. According to the UK Land Directory, 70 per cent of the UK’s 60 million acres is owned by one per cent of the population – 6,000 individuals and companies. We need to grab the land back from these guys. But how?

One answer of course is allotments. The whole point of the allotment is that your family is provided with a little patch of ground that should be suficient to grow your own vegetables. And they are always things of beauty. Like a snowflake, every one is different, and every one reflects the personality of its owner. As I gaze out of train windows in England, Belgium and Holland, I see beautiful allotments and patches of land. I see shambolic homemade sheds, neat rows of beanpoles and raked earth, freshly sown. I see little patches of freedom, created for themselves by the people.

Allotments are in short supply though. That is why I have conceived of a campaign called Land For All. We all need to explore new ways of getting access to a piece of land –
for fun, freedom, fuel and growing things.

In this scheme, we would not be looking for land to live on. This idea is to help those living in cities who would like to be able to escape to their own allotment or playground or campsite for breaks, holidays, parties and feast days. Instead of flying abroad, you would spend the week on your plot, tending the garden and doing exactly what you want. You will not be allowed to build on these plots, but you will be allowed to camp on them or put a caravan on them. This way, those of us bound to cities and jobs will be able to access our own free world, where we can plant a useful and beautiful garden, have barbecues, take the kids for weekend retreats or go alone for some peace.

I called Simon Fairlie, who is one of the people behind the Tinker’s Bubble community in Somerset, and who now sells scythes and runs The Land magazine, one of my favourite reads of all time, to ask his advice.

‘The best thing would be to get together with a bunch of others and buy a few acres,’ he said. ‘This way you can get the land cheaper than when buying a smaller plot.’

Land bought this way can cost £3,000 or so an acre, whereas it can be as much as £20,000 or more per acre for small plots.

‘There is also renting,’ Simon advised. ‘It is worth approaching philanthropic aristocrats or even councils. Many councils have bits of land covered in greenhouses, where they used to grow all the municipal plants for roundabouts and so on. Now these plants are bought in from the Netherlands, so you may be lucky and be able to find some cheap land to rent which already has greenhouses on it.’

You can find more information on Simon Fairlie’s The Land magazine at www.tlio.org.uk. And for information about the new campaign, go to www.landforall.org, where we will hope to provide links and information for those interested in buying non-residential land in groups.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)

 

 

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