In the middle of Trump’s visit, the Tory leadership election and the collapse of Change UK, you would be forgiven for missing the launch of “Land for the Many - Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned and governed.” A 70-page report by independent authors but published by the Labour Party, it has the potential to form the most radical section of the next election manifesto.
The report includes proposals for transparency of land ownership and subsidies; a register of planning permissions including developers’ commitments; stabilisation of house prices; support for Community Land Trusts and community-led Housing. There is something in the report for land reformers, housing campaigners, ramblers and eco-activists. And it’s not just for rural dwellers – proposed amendments to the Land Compensation Act would make it easier for councils to create new parks and urban open spaces. New land would also be put aside for allotments.
On taxation, the report calls for a progressive property tax to replace existing council tax. This would be payable by owners, not tenants, and both empty homes and second homes would be taxed at a higher rate. Business rates would be replaced by a land value tax, calculated on the rental value of local commercial land. Anthony Molloy, Chair of the Labour Land Campaign, which has long advocated such a tax, said, “The sub-title — Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned and governed — bears witness to the commitment of the reinvigorated Labour party to repair the dysfunctional UK land market that has been engineered over centuries to benefit a few very rich citizens at the expense of the many.”
Those of us who have campaigned in rural areas for some time know of the scandal of county councils selling off traditional ‘county farms’. The report encourages a halt to further sales and the creation of new ones, including those suited to modern needs such as market gardeners and horticulturalists. In several areas, there are suggestions for empowering local councils, reversing a decades-long trend in the opposite direction.
The planning system for farming and forestry is addressed and a proposal I would like to see added is that of direct democratic control of National Park Authorities, the only way I believe affordable housing for local youngsters will be addressed in these areas.
Post-Brexit, agricultural subsidies will have to be addressed anyway. The report suggests “an alien observer contemplating our current farm subsidy system would assume we had taken leave of our senses. Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, payments are made by the hectare: the more land you own or rent, the more money you are given. This system represents the most regressive transfer of public wealth in the modern era.” It is also ecologically destructive – and you don’t even have to produce any food to get this cash!
The report states that “by recognising the importance of land and by breaking the destructive spirals of accumulation and deprivation, we will help to create a fairer society. By reviving community, built in our neighbourhoods, we can recover a sense of agency and belonging.”
Reaction was instant. The Tories immediately put out their standard memes (the modern equivalent to model letters to the papers) saying Labour would tax your back garden, somewhat disingenuous as the document isn’t Labour policy yet. And you’d need a pretty big back garden.
More importantly, in the Scottish Parliament, Green MSP Andy Wightman, one of the most informed land law reformers in the UK, submitted a motion welcoming its launch and crediting the Labour Party for publishing it, pointing out its particular relevance to “what it sees as the acute problems facing Scotland.” And this, bearing in mind there is little love lost between the Indy Greens and Unionist Labour in Scotland. The fact that a radical environmentalist like George Monbiot wished to edit the report also shows we can reach outside the traditional Labour family.
Land reform is part of Labour’s history. In power, the Labour Party passed the 1931 Finance Act to bring about a land value tax but when the Tories won the next election, they revoked it. The Party shied away from the issue for over seventy years until Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Leader. It is vital we adopt the report’s recommendations now while we have the chance – we can, indeed, lead people into the Promised Land, but only if we are bold enough to do so.