It’s not a new idea of course. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels advocated the: “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.”
But Martin Adams has a new take on this issue in his book Land insisting that historically we have falsely treated land or nature as capital, despite the fact that we cannot produce land ‘whereas capital is a result of human production’. Adams continues: “This failure to distinguish land from capital prevents economists from recognising the monopoly that allows people to extract incomes from society.” It is also one of the many reasons why we have never had a truly free market.
Adams argues for what he calls a ‘land leasehold model in which land is owned in common, even as it is privately used’. Further, land users should make ‘community land contributions’ based on the value of their land, which is determined not by the land user but the ‘combined value of all the natural and social benefits’ that they ‘receive through their possession and exclusive use of the land’.
But a further question arises when we ask what ownership means. One possible answer comes in a book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. In this book Graeber argues that our concept of ownership is rooted in slavery. In most traditions property is seen as a right to the exclusive use of an object, which is essentially a relationship between people. But he points out that the Romans were able to imagine ‘property not as a relation between people, but as relation between a person and a thing, if one’s starting point is a relation between two people, one of whom is also a thing’. And from this we move on to the weird notion of property being a relationship between a person and an actual thing like a house, when it should be simply an exclusive right to use. And this changes our entire conception of what ownership is – a relationship between people and not dominion over a thing – particularly land.
So what is the situation in England and Wales? (Land law has been devolved in Scotland and Ireland). Well, ultimately, all land is owned by the Crown with land owners only holding an estate in land. So why not transfer all Crown land to common democratic control, held as freehold – to reflect the view that no-one actually owns land – with all ‘landowners’ holding leasehold only? This is actually similar to the situation that exists in Letchworth Garden City and not so very different from the current relationship between landowners and the Crown.
Of course, the big landowners might take a different view!