“We should sing the Land song again” Brian Anson AA Lecture (story) from 1974


What follows are the extensive notes from a paper on ‘LAND’ that the late architect Brian Anson gave at the Architectural Association (AA) in 1974 to a room full of its architecture students and staff. To my knowledge this has never been aired before, other than those who heard it in person. The lecture, or the story he told (As Brian once said ‘I don’t do lectures, I do stories’) had a great impact on several people in that room then, and I feel that it still has much of its potency today, nearly 40 years later. As the opening line so clearly states: ‘this talk is about land’. Anson takes a long view in order to better understand the present (1974) circumstances and to think about the future of territory and land ownership. Although it is buried in the middle of the paper, Anson admits that it is his experience of Ireland that ignited his passion on this subject. In parts, the paper is fiery and unreasoned, and yet every now and again there is a turn of phrase or a paragraph which explodes in lucid and justified argument. And, as was often the case with Anson’s lectures, they end in a rebel song.

(The paper is over 8000 words long and includes no references as it was a typed manuscript. The paper comes courtesy of George Mills, one of Brian’s former AA students at the time and eventual colleague and friend)

photographed by Peter Moloney

photograph by Peter Moloney

Brian Anson AA lecture notes

“We should sing the Land song again”

This talk is about land. Who should own it, what is the power that it contains, what traps ownership of it may hold for common people – or for that matter rich people.

It is not a definitive talk – that is it does not give a simple answer – yet it is topical in view of the Government White Paper.

It is something in which I have always been interested and which I believe is, if not at the core of social problems, pretty near the centre.

It is such a vast subject that I am bound to miss much out, and likewise I am bound to annoy some in the audience more learned than I on the matter, I don’t intend to and if I learn from them I shall be well pleased.

I have some facts and some instincts. The facts are mainly in the paper that follows: my instincts are in a humble way those of the great man whose picture appears on the poster; Padraig Pearce – they are with the landless man against the Lord of Lords and the breadless man against the master of millions.

It is one of my basic beliefs that you cannot create a just situation from a basic injustice. It is clear to me that exploitation of land for private gain has been the second major course of injustice throughout the history of man, The first exploitation of man himself. Much of the misery, death and indignity that man has endured throughout history is in one way of another connected with avaricious schemes to deprive him of his land.

I am aware that at certain times in history, and perhaps today is one of them, ownership of land has not been as helpful to the cause of a better society for common people – Engels, and to an extent Marx, were totally against returning the land to the people – at least whereby they became individual freeholders, Nonetheless I believe that the sacred connection between man and his land is still valid and I treat with suspicion any attempt to ignore it as something unimportant.

The ancient traveller returning to his native soil knelt and pressed the earth to his lips manifesting his link to the elemental roots he must have if he is to remain sane.

An aunt of mine died recently. Her body was taken by sea to Cork. Then by car to a little village outside Galway. They still have a simple tradition in the West of Ireland where the villagers come out 20 miles to escort the cortege into the village. She had been away for many years but her last wish was ‘take me home’. And that’s what the villagers were doing.

The instinctive relationship to a sense of place that these two events illustrate are to me still very basic.

I hope too many of you are not fidgeting and wondering the relevance of old ladies being taken back to villages or travellers weeping into the soil. I know you want facts, statistics and theories. There is no shortage of them, but the sacred relationship of people to land is possibly a greater truth for we are not in perpetual and rootless motion as the mid-cult trendies with their coffee table paperbacks or mobility theories would have us believe. So before I get down to some of the facts of history, I’d like to simply state where I believe the asnwer lies. Though I can’t as yet explain that it’s achievable.

I believe that land must not be exploited for private gain in anyway whatsoever. In the contest of our mixed economy that means nothing less than taking ALL economic value out of land – in fact to make it VALUELESS.

Paradoxically, in the context of our economically dominated society, to take a sacred element out of the system is to make it PRICELESS – which is what land is in reality.

To my mind the common fact of history is the way that land has been exploited for monetary gain to the detriment of civilised society. Why should we not put it in the same category as those other elements that we now consider priceless.

Finite resources such as the air we breath are not yet part of the market mechanism – although in the centre of Tokyo one can ‘buy’ oxygen from a slot machine – and I take it no sane person here would advocate such a policy.

The greatest, most priceless – although ironically not finite – resource of all, the human being, is not yet freed from the market system – but I take it no-one here would bring back slavery or the use of child-labour. We are capable now of considering the human resource as priceless – yet we had to struggle for the freedom – and the greatest opponents of the abolitionists were those who argued the collapse of our economic system should slavery go. Let us strive, therefore, to free land from the market.

This is not daydreaming for at certain times in history, land has been viewed as a sacred and priceless element – and was arguably better cared for to the benefit of all.

Sean O’Faolain has pointed out that the early Celts “…shared property in common and their hold on their land was absolute and incontestable. No Chief or King had any claim on the land and he could not legally dispossess any family in his small kingdom…” The American Indians saw land as a gift from the great spirit and knew that they didn’t own it but held it in trust for future generations – and a whole ecological concept grew out of that belief. The downfall of that whole civilisation began with an attack on the land.

“…the white man made us many promises” said Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux “and he kept but one: he promised to take our land and he did”.

I don’t know whether my concept can be made to work, anymore than the economic theories of Schumacher can be, but I think it’s in the right direction and I think it’s worth a try – in any case there’s been not other solution to the land problem in this country for the past six hundred years.

I used to work for a stupid architect who, thinking he was a modernist, once said to me, that he was not interested in anything written yesterday. I think the exact opposite and in order to learn what little I do know about the land problem I’ve had to go back a good many centuries. And so I begin in the past.

But learning from the past is not the same as living in the past – so travelling through seven centuries as rapidly as possible I’ll end up with the current Government White Paper on Land Reform. And then if you’re still interested we can discuss it.

We think we have a land hunger now and we think that the great inflation in land values of 1973 was an extraordinary event. The only extraordinary thing about it was that the Tory party at last publicly admitted the existence of what it euphemistically called “The unacceptable face of Capitalism”. According to Toynbee’s “English Social History” as long ago as the thirteenth century there was land hunger – too many people and not enough land in cultivation – greatly to the benefit of the landlords. Then the Black death wiped out half the population and the ensuing two centuries were to the benefit of the peasant – who struggled out of serfdom during this period. But by the sixteenth century land hunger was back fr the birth rate had wiped out the ravages of the plague and now there was a surplus of labour – the landlord was back in business.

“Hence” as Toynbee states “The economic opportunity for the landlord to do what he liked with land so much in demand”. Worst of all the hated Enclosures Acts came into being at this time and ‘Economic necessity’ became the Tyrants’ pleas for much oppression when the common land was taken from the people. To be fair, I suppose, the landlord was under some financial pressure as inflation was running at a pretty high rate – between 1500-1560 food prices had trebled – but this plea of economic necessity went too far and became popular wisdom in later years when as Toynbee again says “ the dismal science of Political economy bore iron rule over the minds of men”. Tragically this dismal science has survived up to the present day and economic necessity is still an excuse for land crimes against the people.

I am not an historian, but from what little I do know concerning the land question from the 12th century on and particularly with regard to the Acts of Enclosure, I acknowledge the tremendous complexity of the issue.

What is not denied by any historian, however, is that the Common Law of England  established under Henry II was an excellent foundation to work progressively towards a most just social system in society. Indeed much of that foundation has remained intact in such things as the jury system, and the birth of Parliamentary democracy. But not in the case of land, despite the fact that Trevelyan maintains that:

“The starting point of our modern land law” began in 1275 under Edward I through his two statutes De Donis Conditionalibus and Quia Eviptores Laws which helped bring about the downfall of feudalism by vesting land rights largely in the King.

I can’t see the reality of this, as in later centuries, particularly the 17th and 18th, the parliamentary democracy was largely controlled by politicians who themselves were large landowners.

But to return briefly to the land system under the Common Law of the 12th to 15th centuries. It was John Stuart Mill who pointed out “it is custom, immemorial custom, which is the most powerful protector of the weak against the strong, their sole protector where there are n laws or government adequate to the purpose. That custom which even in the most oppressed condition of mankind, tyranny is forced in some degree to respect…”

If there is any one major basis on which social life of England rested during the common law period it was this one of “immemorial custom” and particularly over land and tenant rights. The Durham Halmote Rolls published by the Surtess Society at the beginning of the 19th Century gives a vivid account of community life in Medieval Northumberland:

“The dry record of tenures is peopled by men and women under the various phases of village life. We see them in their tofts surrounded by their crofts with their gardens of pot herbs. We see how they ordered the affairs of the village in matters concerning the common meal of the community. We hear of how they repressed their strifes and contentions, of their attempts, not always ineffective, to grasp the principle of co-operation.

Local provisions for public health and general convenience are evidenced by the watchful vigilance of the village officials over the water supplies, the care taken to prevent the fouling of useful streams, and stringent by-laws as to the common place for clothes washing and the time for emptying and cleansing ponds and mill dams. labour was lightened and the burdens of life eased by co-operation on an extensive scale. A common mill ground the corn, and the flour was baked into bread at a common oven. A common smith worked at a common forge and common shepherds and herdsmen watched the sheep and cattle of various tenants when pastured on the fields common to the whole community.”

According to Cardinal Gasquet writing in the early part of the 20th century – a review of the halmote rolls “leaves no doubt that the tenants, had a recognised right in their holdings, which was ripening into a customary freehold estate.”

Professor Thorold Rogers in his lectures on “the Economic Interpretation of History” given at Oxford in 1887, adds further evidence when he says that:

“The peasant was rarely without his patch of land and beyond the plot which he held in severalty, the peasant had more or less extensive rights of common. The common, even if it did not afford herbage for his cow, was a run for his poultry, and assured him the occasional fowl in the pot.”

The key phrase is “ripening into a freehold estate”. The immemorial custom backed up the obvious advantage of co-operative working may quite easily have developed over time into a well-nigh-unshakable social system based on co-operation and Communal ownership. That was well removed from despotic state control or bureaucratic Communism.

Even Gordon-Rattray-Taylor in his recent and pessimistic book “Rethink” describes how one of the most common topics of conversation during this time was the definition of a fair profit and he suggests that an individual those aim was unlimited profit would have been forwned upon by society in general.

Professor Rogers sums it up when he says:

“…the rate of production was small, the conditions of health unsatisfactory and the duration of life short; but on the whole there were none of those extremes of poverty and wealth which have excited the astonishment of philanthropists and are now exciting the indignation of workmen. The age it is true had its discontents, and these were expressed in a startling manner. But of poverty which premises unheeded, of willingness to do honest work and a lack of opportunity, there was little or none. The essence of life during the Plantagenets and the Tudors was that everyone knew his neighbour, and that everyone was his brother’s keeper. My studies lead me to conclude that though there was a hardship in this life, the hardship was a common lot and that there was hope…”

Three events changed all this, and in terms of the land problem changed the course of history: the Acts of Enclosure, the dissolution of the Monasteries and the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

The first two were to change drastically the ownership pattern of land; whether it be legal ownership or ownership by ‘immemorial custom’. The industrial Revolution was eventually to create, amongst other things, the industrial city and the land problems that are with us still today.

All three events together were to produce a new class of people which from now on was to lie at the very heart of the land problems: the “landless labourer”. In effect the industrial working class man was born, and his increasingly desperate plight was to complicate the land issue enormously right to to the present day. In future centuries some like Proudhon, the bourgeois Socialist and Parnell, the Irish Catholic leader would try to leas him back to that co-operative wonderland of individual ownership partly described above, while others like Marx and Engels would keep him away from such ownership and petit bourgeois traps in order that he might lead the socialist revolution.

It is not the purpose of this paper to discuss the religious validity of the Reformation in England. As so often in the past, and still today, religious friction has been used by the ruling class as a cloak to hide or evade real social problems. But the social upheaval caused by this event was enormous in England. Again the issue is complex with one side, such as the partisan Catholics, arguing that the Abbots, Monks and Priors were responsible and benevolent landlords to their tenants, and that the dissolution of the monasteries robbed the communities of a sound and reasonably happy base for living. The passages I’ve quoted above by such as Professor Thorold suggest there is some truth in this.

Others, not impressed by ‘other-worldly’ attitudes towards community structure place greater emphasis on the undoubted misuse of responsibility shown by many monastic settlements and suggest that long before Reformation the monasteries were being run by secular middle-men with an eye to profit.

It is for the individual to make up his own mind on whether the dissolution was socially retrograde step or not. Personally I tend to agree with the Protestant Radical William Cobbett, that the event was more a social disaster than civilised progress. But again there is complete agreement by most historians on one significant point. Dramatic events in history are neither entirely good nor entirely bad. Henry VIII and later Edward VI having confiscated the monastic lands had a wonderful opportunity to redistribute it justly amongst the people and in fact some historians suggest that in Henry’s case this was the first intention.

But as Trevelyan says in his English Social History “…the Exchequer was empty and the courtiers were greedy and the hasty sale of the lands to private purchasers was the course adopted.

The dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of the property of the chantries and guilds resulted in the transfer of well over 2,000,000 acres of land into the hands of new proprietors. The change of ownership was disastrous for the poorer tenants although many of the stronger yeomanry class did very well out of it and their first step to becoming property owning capitalists. The new brand of owners, who had in many cases paid large sums for their land, began immediately a system of rack renting and encroaching upon common land.

As regards the early acts of enclosure there are again mixed views. There is clear agreement that the very poor suffered enormously as their common land was enclosed and they were deprived of its benefits, When the Parliament, as it then became, was closed by law to anyone not a considerable owner of land it is impossible to argue the right of ownership of land by ‘immemorial custom’. And that is the only right the peasant had. Prior to the dissolution of the monasteries and the Acts of Enclosure this right was largely adequate.

The vast reduction of small holdings left the peasant farmer helpless and the worthless compensation that he did, on occasion, get merely led him to the alehouse. Suddenly great numbers of people were homeless, jobless, half-starving vagrants. In connection with this Elizabeth in 1495 brought her Statute of Labourers.

According to Professor Thorold the object of this celebrated or infamous act was threefold.

1.To break up the combination of labourers

  1. To secure the adequate machinery of control
  2. To make the peasant labourer the residuum of all other labour – or, in other words, to forcibly increase the supply

Not long after, in 1541, the first Poor Laws came into being. So one way to look at the results of the dissolution of the monasteries and the Acts of Enclosure is to see them as robbing great numbers of poor people of their customary rights in land by confiscation; creating a new rich and powerful minority owning large estates; creating in the process a new class, that of the landless labourer; the creation of poor laws and destitution on a large scale – culminating in the terrible state of the working class in the 19th century in England – and finally as being the origin of the class scars that mar our society today.

Others argue that while the early acts of enclosure created social damage, the final enclosure Acts of the 17th century and early 18th century were a national necessity. England, in those days, did not yet have access to the great granaries of the world – such as Russia, and with an exploding population and the rapid growth of the cities, the country must produce much more food or starve. As the traditional small farming methods were wasteful they must be replaced by a more streamlined arrangement of land use.

Whatever the merits of the latter argument, the 17th century was also the pinnacle of the landowning gentry class – and poverty amidst affluence was commonplace.

The Acts of Enclosure were beneficial to sections of the population even including the yeoman class and many of the craftsmen, but a whole section of the poor were totally excluded. In contrast Denmark which proceeded with enclosure at the same time took into account the interest of all classes, even the very poorest, with excellent consequences in the Danish society of today.

By and large I agree with first Cobbett, and finally Toynbee, the modern historian who says:

“Henry VIII had been driven by financial necessity to sell most of the confiscated lands privately. The potential value of the land was much higher than the lay purchasers had paid.

The ultimate beneficiary of the dissolution was not religion, not education, not the poor, not even in the end the crown, but a class of fortunate gentry whose power replaced that of the great nobles and ecclesiastics of the feudal ages and whose word was to be law in England for centuries to come…”

So land hunger and its consequent exploitation is nothing new. What about rocketing land values? Again it’s all happened before as 19th century Scotland shows, to give just one example. In these islands it is the Scottish people like the Irish who know deep in their bones what land means – they suffered one of the worst indignities of any nation – they were driven from their land by sheep – the Cheviot.

But as John Prebble says in ‘The Highland Clearances’:

“…the land owners could see no reason for complaint. Wool was making them rich. Wool had forced up the value of land all over the highlands. In five years the sale price of the Castlehill Estate had risen from £8000 to £80,000. Redcastle, which had been sold for £25,000 in 1790 was shortly to be sold (in 1817) for £135,000 and the Fairburn estate, which had yielded a rental of £700 in 1800 was now in 1817 worth £80,000 rental a year.”

They had a rather quaint legal system in those days for at the trial of Patrick Sellar, one of the villains of the time who spent his time evicting poor crofters in order that his masters could make the sort of profits I have described, it was stated:

“that a bed-ridden woman of 90 had been evicted from her house and died five days later in an outhouse (the cottage was in fact set on fire by Sellar while the woman still lay in her sick bed). This was not contested in court and the judge and jurors agreed that Mr Sellar could not be held responsible for the ‘natural tendency of a person to die if rendered suddenly homeless’.”

This is just one of millions of examples whereby horrific and tragic death springs directly from private exploitation of land. Only two weeks ago I read of how fifty square miles of this same countryside that Patrick Sellar ravaged in the early 19th century is to be sold on the international market so that Lady Sutherland may rationalise the other 100,000 acres of her ancestral estate. To rationalise means to provide a lucrative grouse shooting, salmon fishing, golf course for the multi-national oil magnates no doubt. First it was the Cheviot, then it was mid-century Shell-Esso man – BUT WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE PEOPLE? Of course they never came into it. They never did in the past and if huge profits are to be made today from land they are likewise excluded.

The Scots know that history will always attempt to repeat itself. In 1973 the last Tory government was determined to bring its LAND DEVELOPMENT BILL in order to expedite the oil-rush.

A spokesman stated publicly “We must have the platform building sites whether the people like it or not”.


But one last comment on Scotland. Even bureaucracies throughout history can occasionally make a statement that has the ring of pure simple truth about it. And the final statement of the Crofters Commission of 1892 said:

“…the solution of the Highland Problem is not land purchase but the resumption of the Clansman’s right to occupy the Fatherland….”

No mention of economic necessity or investment or a healthy economy – but a question of human RIGHT and a RESUMPTION of that right. Just think about it for a minute and ponder on modern interpretations:

“The solution of London’s housing problem is a resumption of the old communities RIGHT to occupy the city….”

“The solution to the Irish problem is a resumption of the Native Irish’s RIGHT to occupy the motherland.”

And what is the land story in Ireland.

I must confess that it was an interest in the history of that country that led to the beginning of my interest in the land problem.

Land and the so-called Irish problem are synonymous and some of the greatest agitators for land reform in the 19th century came out of that country.

I have already mentioned that the old Celtic order had a system of land ownership based entirely on the community. A system of land control that was ta the base of social structure extraordinarily communistic in its character and in the truest sense of the term.

Amongst the many dreadful deeds that England perpetrated against that nation, it’s attack on the land was paramount in its destruction of a way of life. They first tried to conquer the land – and failed; they then tried to plant it with aliens and only partially succeeded, then they reinforced the little bit they could hold and invented “The Pale” and finally in the great tradition of all imperial powers they partitioned it.

In the early 1840’s two million people starved to death in Ireland and another two million emigrated with half of those dying in the coffin ships before reaching their destination – often because they were driven from the land.

Never lecture an Irishman on Genocide. Nor indeed on the economic necessities that a poor landlord has to face. For it was as a direct result of land exploitation that Ireland changed overnight form being the fastest growing population outside China to the sparsely peopled land she is today.

It was at the height of that famine that starving peasants were evicted from the land and when they built SCALPEENS to protect their shrivelled bodies from the weather.

  • a scalpeen is a ditch with a bit of a roof over it – hence the Irish saying that you can never stumble into an Irish ditch without falling down a chimney –

They were evicted from the Scalpeens.

When this matter was raised in the House of Lords in 1846, Lord Brougham stated:

“It is the landowners inalienable right to do exactly as he pleases to do with his land, If this were not so money would no longer be invested in land.”

Fortunately history is not all gloom, for 1846 brought something good to the land question in Ireland.

It brought the birth of Michael Davitt. A man of high courage, moral no less than physical, a passionate man totally intolerant of cruelty and injustice, and most important of all the man who was to become the father of the LAND LEAGUE.

But before Davitt a few words on James Fintan Lalov who died three years after Davitt’s birth in 1846. Where the latter was the father of the land league, Lalov is popularly seen as the prophet of revolutionary Irish land reform.

The social system of 19th century Ireland gave supreme power to the landlord and no security to the tenant. The growth of the landless labourer, referred to above, was very rapid in Ireland. Lalov assumed “…the general and common right of all the people as joint and co-equal proprietors of all the land … and no man had a right to hold one foot of Irish soil otherwise than by grant of tenancy from the people in common…”

Lalov was not interested in nationalisation – but rather in co-operative ownership. He considered the position of the landless labourer to be beyond repair, and his theories have little connection with the dense urban problems of our day.

Davitt’s views are more pertinent and in the end he was as suspicious of individual peasant ownership as an answer to the land problem as Engels was.

The son of an evicted Mayo peasant Davitt moved into Revolutionary politics through an early five year spell in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenian forerunner of the modern IRA. In addition his foundation with Parnell of the Land League in 1879 increased his radicalism for the organisation, through technically legal, was animated by the spirit of social revolution.

The battle cry of the Land League was simply the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland and its initial aim was the overthrow of an oppressive landlord class.. Davitt was eager to emphasise its universal implications and declared that “…the principles on which the land movement rests are founded on natural justice … the cause of Ireland is the cause of humanity and labour throughout the world…”

The problem arose, and still today arises, when Davitt had to consider what system would replace the landlord. The tenant farmers led by Parnell (who incidentally would never tolerate Trade Unions) were clear on the aims – their own holdings would belong to them. Davitt thought otherwise – in line with Henry George, whose famous book ‘Progress and Poverty’ had appeared in 1879 – he saw nationalisation, or state ownership of all land – as the solution.

According to Davitt, “Land was a unique commodity, it was no man’s creation, it was essential to all life and it was fixed in quantity. It ought therefore to be directly owned and administered by the state. Private monopoly in land meant that the landlord appropriated most of the wealth produced by labour returning only a bare living to the tenant. Under national ownership the tenant would enjoy the full product of his industry and would have a virtual freehold, paying a tax equal to the annual value of the bare land, and observing certain conditions. he holding must be cultivated: it should not be larger than the tenant could personally manage – and the State should have the right to authorise mines and minerals worked in it.

In general terms the ultimate outcome in Ireland, peasant proprietorship, was not the solution of the land problem at which he aimed.

His suspicion of this ‘solution’ was matched only by the contempt of such an aim by Engels who declared:-

“…for our workers in the big cities, freedom of movement is the prime condition of existence, and land ownership can only be a fetter to them, Give them their own houses, chain them once again tot the soil and you break their power of resistance to the wage cutting of the factory owners…”

In England the land of nationalisation theories of Henry George, the American author of ‘Poverty and Progress’ were advocated thirty years later by another George, Prime Minister, Lloyd George. In his budget – his Peoples’ Budget as he called it – of 1909, he introduced taxes on land values. Looking back on them they were not startling – eg. one 1/2 penny in the pound on the added value realised by the sale of land where the community had made that value possible. But they caused a tremendous political storm and the House of Lords (which incidentally Davitt had referred to as that Den of Land Thieves) rejected the budget, and a constitutional crisis ensued.

Lloyd George travelled the country presenting the land issue – and in his famous Limehouse speech he described the landowners living on unearned profits as parasites:

“Who created these increments? Who made that golden swamp? Was it the Landlord? Was it his energy? His brains? It is rather hard that an old workman should have to find his way to the gates of the tomb bleeding and footsore, through the brambles and thorns of poverty. We cut a new path for him, an easier one, a pleasanter one, through fields of waving corn.”

But the land taxes brought in little revenue and were abandoned n the days of the coalition. Lloyd George continued to proclaim his belief in public landownership and a total abolition of freehold. In the mid-twenties he was the main force behind the Green Book and Brown Book.

The former called for public ownership of all agricultural land and the latter for total nationalisation of all urban land.

Had these proposals been adopted our economic situation today might well be different.

The Green Book proposed that the vast, and growing numbers of urban unemployed world return to a countryside that belonged to them and not the large landowning farmers.

Advocates of Lloyd George’s policy formed an organisation called the Land and the Nation League and toured Britain advocating land nationalisation.

But the opponents of public land ownership were beginning to dig-on and eventually even the liberal party was divided.

The early planning acts form 1909 through to 1932 had not proved a success – perhaps because they were too loosely drafted on such a vital issue. It proved too costly to pay compensation for development refusal, and the collection fo betterment levies provd well nigh impossible.

Three major inquiries, the Barlow, Scott and Uthwatt, in the 30’s and early 40’s agreed on the need for a national land system. Ultimately the 1947 Planning Act took up Ultwatt’s main idea: a transfer to the State of all development rights in land. The three major principals of the ’47 Act were:

  1. Planning Permission required for all development (this for the first time).
  2. No compensation paid for refusal
  3. Betterment would accrue to the State through Development charges paid to a CENTRAL LAND BOARD.

In addition, and in retrospect fundamentally, all land was expected to change hands at existing use value. This in theory Local Authorities could buy land cheaply.

Three things happened instead:

  1. Owners held land back (they hoarded it)
  2. Privately land changed hands at market value – this keeping up the price
  3. Landowners sat back expecting a future Tory Government to repeal the Act.

Which is exactly what happened in 1951. The Tories kept development control and the no compensation clause – but abolished the Central Land Board.

Now an absurd, but legal, two-pricing system existed. Local Authority could still buy land at a price exclusive of development value – if they could find it. But private sales took place at full market value.

The Tories 1959 Planning Act reinstated the full market value for all land exchange – from now on no more cheap land for public services and amenities.

The market mechanism was in top gear. From the early 60’s to the present day has been the boom period when land prices have soared and massive unearned fortunes have been made in property. Prior to this time land and property was not even quoted on the Stock Exchange; now it occupies the front page of all financial papers.

One meek and mild attempt was made by the Labour administration to stop this criminal profiteering – when it set up the Land Commission in 1967. It called for a 40% flat rate tax on development gains – but nothing much else was done. Local authorities could still not buy land cheap enough to build desperately needed homes. In any case, the Tories abolished the Land Commission in 1970. It was during this time 1966-1972, that

land values rose 228%

house prices rose 113%

manual earnings rose 52%

During this time, according to Counter Information Services, 100 men between them shared £400 million from property and land deals.

During this time – the profits of the big private architects rose 118% while the number of new commissions rose only 34%.

During this time a senior official in Manchester Corporation Planning Department said – “Land means money – not just money – it’s a gold mine”.

During this time I personally watched the first Chairman of the Covent Garden Development Committee dangle prizes of enormous profit from inflated land values before the slobbering faces of Britain’s top developers.

During this time I got sick to death of the professions I was in because of the way land was handled as a marketable commodity and the way the architectural and planning professions made no move to change the situation. And now we are at the White Paper.

I’m not going to go into great detail over the Land Nationalisation Bill – for one things it’s not a very detailed document anyway and had been criticised as such by none other than the Labour Party Home Affairs Committee – but in any case I should be concluding soon.

It’s important to see the Bill as just another stage in a centuries long effort to sort out the and problem in our society. This really has been the whole point of my talk. To understand the present we must understand the past – then we might have some hope of getting things right in the future.

Of course it depends on your own viewpoint in the end – some would say we don’t even have a land problem, and many Marxists take this view, but when in 1974 we have 9 million families living in slums and well over a million totally homeless, yet in the last ten years 100 men have made £400 million pounds profit from land deals – I can’t see that we don’t have a land problem.

The ultimate aim of the Land Bill is to take from private individuals into the community purse the wealth realised from values created by the community and to enable local authorities to have a more positive influence on development in accordance with public needs. This ill be done (it is said) by:

  1. Giving Local Authorities strong compulsory powers to purchase land at existing use value
  2. Charging a 100% Development Land Tax (DLT) on all developed land. This means that when land is developed, the increased market value of the land springing from the development will go to the community. The argument for this is that the infrastructure which creates the increased value was provided not by the developer but by the public who thus should benefit

The ultimate scheme (100% tax) will not come in for some time, say 5 years (by which time incidentally if history repeats itself – and on land issues history does repeat itself, the entire Bill will be repealed by a future Tory Administration).

An interim scheme will charge a flat rate of DLT of 80%. Ironically this is less than can be charged under Development Gains Tax – where the maximum is 83%.

I find Anthony Crossland’s (the main sponsor) reasons for delaying the ultimate scheme puzzling to say the least. He is quoted as saying the land values would drop too suddenly if the 100% tax was introduced immediately.

In the context of the phenomenal rise in land values during the last 5 years, I should have thought we wanted values to drop drastically.

Certain land users are totally excluded from the payment of Development Tax:

  • Owner occupiers
  • Agricultural land
  • Forestry land
  • Statutory undertakers
  • Builders and Owners with planning permission on White Paper Day (12 Aug).

In basic theory the profits from the development of land will either accrue to the Local Authority or the Exchequer. The Local Authority have the option, instead of granting planning permission (whereupon the developer pays out his DLT to the Government) can acquire the land by Compulsory Purchase – net of DLT – then ease it back to the developer at the Developed Value. Crossland described this at his press conference as “money for Old Rope” and calculated that the public would profit by £750 million.

Others think differently – and argue that the taxpayer will have to fork out £500 to £1000 million merely in order to fund the purchasing of the land even at existing use value. It’s a moot point – although Local Authorities have no money – and the Government is hardly rich.

But it’s more complicated and worrying than that. Tony Crossland has in some quarters been called the Developers’ Saviour because of the possible implications of the Bill.

The argument goes like this:-

  • Local Authority somehow finds the money to acquire the land by CP.
  • Local Authority cannot afford to do much with it – and can’t allow it to remain idle – as some interest changes have to be paid.
  • So Local Authority attempts to lease it to Developer – at increased Developed Value (remember Money for Old Rope).
  • Developer won’t consider anything not profitable. (He’ll go into oil, or art or pornography or something instead)
  • Suddenly Developer is in the driving seat again.
  • As always he’s got the Local Authority by the curlies – and of course all his negotiating skills come to the fore.
  • And bingo – we’re back where we started.
  • An unwanted office block on that part of the site and a bit of expensive Local Authority Housing on the other.

There are many other obvious criticisms of the Bill which unfortunately ring true.

The market in development land will dry up because owners will not bring land forward unless profit is guaranteed. They will simply hold tight hoarding the land until a future Tory administration repeals the Bill. All this has happened before.

If Local Authorities have the purchase money and the expert staff (and this is a very big IF), to ‘hunt down’ the land hoarders, great social hatred will be engendered.

It is argued, justifiably, that Local Authorities lack the expertise to handle such massive land-banks as would be required to solve our housing and other social problems. Furthermore Local Authorities do not have a very good reputation of looking after land. That they have acquired – a glance at any city centre will prove that.

Finally the whole process can be bogged down in inter-area arguments over the definition of development land – and this is especially in the contest of the general public antagonism and mistrust felt towards Local Authority planning departments.

On the bright side the Bill, as expected, really smashes the more blatant property speculators. For example if a building like Centre point is not occupied within two years after construction date – then the Local Authority can acquire it at construction date value. In the case of Harry Hyams Empire this can be the difference between £5.5 million and a market value of £42 million. But as I said this sort of Government action was expected and could well divert attention from the more complex land issue.

Reactions to the White Paper are mixed. The RTPI is split – with half warning the Government to go slow on Land Nationalisation and the rest saying do it in a big way.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities are wildly enthusiastic – I presume because they will be given the power to buy land cheaply and sell it dearly. This is a very attractive idea to any group of human beings. I would call that an emotional response.

On the other hand the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers call it a blueprint for disaster – again I would think this is an emotional response – as the valuers commodity may well reduce in price – and no group of human beings like that idea.

The Labour Party Home Affairs Committee chaired by Tony Beurn seems very disillusioned with the Bill – because it is not strong enough or if you like not Socialist enough – you could call this an emotional response but at least it seems to pay some heed to historical truth. A final comment on the White Paper. Let me read you the paragraph on Land Disposal.


So what conclusions might I draw?

I think the Bill will fail because it is not strong enough.

I think most of the criticisms against it are valid, specifically I don’t understand why the 100% DLT could not be introduced immediately. I can’t understand some of the categories excluded from the force of the Bill – for example owners and builders already holding planning permission.

I think the public’s disillusionment with the Local Authority power base (particularly in the light og recent corruption) is deeper than the Government thinks – and thus the increased powers of land purchase given to them is not so wondrous.

But mainly I think the Bill will fail to solve the eternal land problem for two basic reasons:

  1. Nationalisation – or public land ownership is by itself neither here nor there – it is what one does the power of ownership that counts. And our representatives have not shown themselves responsible enough in recent years.
  2. Solving the land problem will not on its own solve the social problem – of production and power.

My basic view at this stage is:- that first we must have total nationalisation of land immediately.

Second: a new community-based power structure must be set up -possibly within the context of a Republic.

Thirdly: public ownership of the means of production

And fourthly, since none of the above have any meaning whatsoever without financial change, the Nationalisation of the Banking System. Or if this seems too strong – the New Social Role of Money as James Robertson puts it.

I have not stressed Nationalisation to such an extent because I believe in State Control – I do not – but rather because I believe more in balance as the real reality of social life – no-one can deny the existence of total imbalance on the issues I have mentioned. I am suspicious of the avalanche of books being written that pertain to be revolutionary but whose only message is: we will create a more just society if we only become good little people. Even dear old Schumacher’s book comes down to that. My view is get the balance back then we can make progress.

To conclude:

Land does belong to the the people – it belongs to you and to me – and thus to no-one in particular. This is not daydreaming, such a general attitude has been prevalent before in human history. That fact that our society, in terms of land-ownership, took a wrong turning somewhere in the past, and that our social system is based upon the consequences of that turning does not mean that we must forever live with it.

For why should we accept that reality that has been forced upon us? The raped cities, the pollution or our environment, the millions of homeless, the hideous and unacceptable face of Capitalism, the death of Architecture, the wars and the bombs and the bullets, the corruption of our representatives.

We have the power to choose another reality. A reality based in co-operation, on the understanding that we can share things especially those common to all of us and vital to our existence. A reality based on past evidence – on a past when Arab and Jew did co-exist and not struggle over land – when Irish catholic and Irish Protestant did not kill each other over land. A past when the American Indian did offer to share his vast plains with the White Settlers and when the indigenous urban poor did share their land with those more well to do.

I’m certainly not saying the answer is simple – I know that I personally must do much more studying of the issue. But if land does belong to the people, whether is it God-given or not, then at least I can begin from that basis and never flinch from that fundamental truth.

If we wish to alienate people, make them sullen, make them desperate, and finally if we wish to experience more bombs, bloodshed and tragedy, then all history has shown the most effective way to accomplish this – cast them out, make them homeless – deprive them of their land.

As I said I don’t know the full answer – I know it’s not simple – but I know that we are not going to reach it by picking ay a centuries’ old problem that came into being on the wave fo basic injustice. Out attitude must be more fundamental than that. 60% of the wealth of this country is owned by 3% of the population, and much of that wealth is in land. At the very least we must correct that situation.

It may sound unhelpful but the best analysis of the situation I have come across is that which was printed in the events list.

When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, which played some part in the Acts of Enclosure he did so by confiscation. Perhaps society will just have to confiscate the land back again – then we can begin solving the land problem.

There are certain issues with which it is better to be angry rather than to have fashionable objectivity and kindliness towards one’s adversaries. I think the existing power of the big land owners is such an issue. Bernadette Devlin ends her book “The Price of my Soul” in which she records her fight against the Unionist Party, with these words:

“For half a century it has misgoverned us but is is on its way out. Now we are witnessing its dying convulsions. And with traditional, Irish mercy, when we’ve got it down we’ll kick it into the ground.”

I have the same feeling over land ownership.

I owe the title of this lecture to Dingle Foot who in a rather pessimistic article on the Land Problem as outlined in the White Paper, concluded:

“We should sing the Land song again”.

I agree and I’m going to.

Of all people it was that old Tory Winston Churchill who led the singing of this song to vast open air meetings at the turn of the century. I’ll sing two original verses with the chorus plus three I’ve written to bring it up to date a bit. The tune is marching through Georgia.

Sound a blast for freedom boys

and send it far and wide

March along to victory for

God is on our side

While the voice of nature

Thunders o’er the rising tide

God made the land for the people.


Hark the sound is swelling from

The East and from the West

Why should we beg work and

let the landlord take the best

Make them pay their taxes for

The Land. We’ll risk the rest

On the land that’s free for the people.


Why should Harry Hyams

And the likes of Charlie Clore

make their filthy fortunes

from the homeless and the poor

With their lousy architects

Who are rotten to the core

They all take the land from the people.


Why should Bonny Scotland

Where the common folk are poor

lose their homes and farmland

to the oil rigs off the shore

while the Multinationals

just watch their profits soar

from the land they took from the people.


But one day we’ll awaken

with a passion that has grown

to the sound of freedom boys.

We’ll go and take our own

And to Hell with Politicians

and the lies that have sown

We’ll take the land for the people.


The land, the land

t’was God who made the land

the ground on which we stand

Why should we all be beggars boys

With the ballot in our hand

We’ll take the land

For the people.


2 responses to ““We should sing the Land song again” Brian Anson AA Lecture (story) from 1974

  1. Reblogged this on Séamus Sweeney and commented:
    Here is a fascinating, thought-provoking talk from Brian Anson in the 1970s. Are things different now? Well,

    0.022% of the EU’s population (0.7% of its farming population) own a quarter of its land. Collectively, they receive €12 billion/annum, thanks to the CAP. “Fiscal injustice of the most medieval kind” – @MarkCocker2— Tom Holland (@holland_tom) April 3, 2018


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