Connecting with the land – policy suggestions, and some history, for Gordon Brown

From an article by Graham Harvey, former writer for Private Eye and winner of a BP Natural World Book Prize –

In the 16th century – as now – many large country estates were bought-up by London merchants and lawyers and “enclosed” for sheep pasture. In the process, villagers were robbed of the land rights they had enjoyed for centuries. Families accustomed to healthy foods and a measure of independence were overnight thrown into destitution with the creation of a new underclass, the “landless labourers”.

Historians are quick to point out the benefits of this land privatisation, begun under the Tudor monarchs. Private ownership encouraged technical improvements leading to the “agricultural revolution”, they argue. The resulting increase in food production supported a greatly increased population and provided a springboard for industrialisation.

But, on the downside, it destroyed Britain’s food culture and turned farming into a profit-centred business rather than a means of feeding people properly. That’s why postwar policies have been principally aimed at inflating land values rather than encouraging good farming.

It’s also why the United States and Europe are currently handing out large amounts of public money for biofuel production. The benefits for most of us will be marginal, but there are huge rewards in it for global corporations.

No doubt some of the new merchant landowners will bring benefits to the countryside just as they did in the 16th century. Some will choose to produce wholesome foods by traditional methods, using modern marketing techniques to make the operation financially robust. In an industry driven by the corporate culture of agri-business, there’s certainly room for more proper farming.

However, the overall impact of the new farm buyers has been to inflate farm prices just when the winding down of the damaging production subsidies was beginning to take the steam out of the market. High land prices do nothing to advance good food. Instead, they are a spur to intensification – to more pesticides, more fertilisers and more factory farms.

In a modern democracy, it makes no sense to allow the ultra-rich to take over our land. At the moment, the only people buying land are those who make a killing in the City or from rock music, or big farmers who get bigger by swallowing up their smaller neighbours.

What Britain needs is land reform. If Gordon Brown wishes to bury the jibe that New Labour cared nothing for the countryside, he could do worse than introduce measures to get young people into farming. An end to all tax breaks and subsidies for land ownership would be a good start.

But he could go further. How about legislation to encourage more landowners to rent out land to new entrants into farming? Better still, he could set up a national land bank from which farms could be let out to young entrants along the lines of the county council small-holding schemes.

Britain’s agriculture has gone awry because the people have been largely excluded from it. Before the Tudors, almost the entire population were rural stakeholders. Until the people are once more re-engaged with the land and the way their food is produced, the countryside will not thrive.

Ever since devolution, land reform has been high on Scotland’s rural agenda. Where it has been put into practice, there’s been a flowering of rural activity and prosperity.

But the best example comes from Ireland. In 1876 no less than 80% of the country was owned by just 616 landowners. The British government – and later the government of the Irish Free State – put up the money for tenant farmers to buy up their farms. Today 97% of the country’s 149,000 farms are family owned. The average farm size is just 64 acres.

At the same time, its people are among the most prosperous in the world. On a per capital basis Irish people now enjoy the second-highest income on the planet. This may not be entirely unconnected with the fact that the people have got their land back.

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