Privatising publicly owned land in Britain

There has been much debate over the profiteering and mismanagement at British privatised enterprises, such as Carillion, a “stark, rotting symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the privatisation of local public services”. What has had little attention is the sell-off of public lands in the UK that started with Margaret Thatcher about 39 years ago.

Since then, all types of public land, held by local and central government alike, has been targeted. And while disposals have generally been heaviest under Tory and Tory-led administrations, they did not abate under New Labour; indeed the NHS estate, in particular, was ravaged during the Blair years. All told, around 2 million hectares of public land have been sold to private interests during the past four decades. This amounts to an eye-watering 10% of the entire British land mass, and is about half of all the land that was owned by public bodies when Thatcher assumed power. The approximate value of that land has been estimated to be £400bn in today’s prices. This dwarfs the value of all of Britain’s other, better known, and often bitterly contested, company privatisations.

Much of the public land was sold to private-sector developers, who have long been the biggest buyers of government land. This was supposed to have helped alleviate Britain’s housing problems, but it has done nothing of the sort. Land has been sold to developers, with the expectation that there would be adequate new housing created. On the contrary developers’ bulging land banks are chock-full of land acquired from public bodies, but they have chosen not to develop it. Now local authorities are in the perverse position of needing enhanced powers to affordably acquire land for a new generation of council houses because, for four decades, they have been forced to sell the land needed for social housing. The cost of this is astounding.

Now half the public land has been sold, and it would be difficult, not to mention politically highly controversial, to get much of that land back, presumably at highly inflated prices.

If today the government could take one single action that would do more than any other to help arrest the intensification of Britain’s housing crisis, halting the sale of public land would be it. To be sure, with so much of Britain’s valuable public land having gone, much of the damage has already been done But if half of it is still left. This land should be protected, treasured, and used for public benefit, before it is too late.

(Based on a new book by Brett Christophers, professor in the Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala university. His book, The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain)

My  comment:  This has been straight theft from future generations.  It was done to benefit the Exchequer as an alternative to putting up taxes (“dear, dear can’t increase taxes on our supporters!”) Now, in no time really, that series of windfalls has been spent.  Because you cannot create new land (statement of the obvious) the value of the scarce former public land steadily goes up to the benefit of the developers, and no one else.  Few new house are being built, but the balance sheets must look great, and donations to you- know who are probably healthy, too.  I don’t know whether this whole catastrophe can be classed as corrupt, but if you think it is, I won’t argue.

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