Whose land is it anyway?

A man was touring the British back roads on his bike in late Spring/early Summer. Picture the scene; the glorious, blossoming hedgerows packed with flora and the rustles of fauna unseen, the musky fragrance of elder flower and early gorse. Along a quiet, gravely track away from the traffic, he pulls off the road for his lunch and rests for a short while in a field. Just him, his bike and the glories of the British countryside.

After a short time, a Range Rover pulls into the entrance to the field and parks by the gate; the gate that he had rested his bike against whilst he enjoyed his repast. The following conversation ensued:

Range Rover man: “Hey you. What do you think you are doing?”

Cyclist: “Just having a wee rest while I have my lunch. Beautiful here isn’t it?”

RR man: “Yes it is and its mine.”

Cyclist: “Oh. Yours? What do you mean?”

RR man: “It’s my land and you can’t stop here.”

Cyclist: “Your land? Mmm. How did you come by it?”

RR man: “My father left it to me. We have owned this land for generations.”

Cyclist: “I see. And how many generations?”

RR man: “We have owned this land since my great great Grandfather.”

Cyclist: Oh. And how did he get it?”

RR man (a little ruffled by now) “He got it from the previous owners. It was in their family as long as records go back. Now leave; this is my land and you cannot stay here.”

Cyclist: “And how did they get the land?”

RR man: “They fought for it and won.”

Cyclist: “Fine. I will fight YOU for it now then.”

Okay. It’s a joke of sorts, but actually it’s not really that ridiculous. Unfortunately, it is real life in a nutshell. My point? You cannot own land. In reality, nobody can.

You may be allocated guardianship or legal stewardship but you cannot own it. You may have legal title under the vagaries of UK Law but these legal agreements are invariably based upon fundamentally unfair historic principles and activities in days of yore; namely that if or your ancestors happened to ally themselves with the “winners” in some arbitrary war or battle or political upheaval, then you “got” the land as reward; quite simply, the spoils of war. I agree, that this simplifies the situation somewhat but keep going back in history and at some stage public or common land will have been taken over by private individuals whether you go back to pre-Christian times, the Viking/Saxon era, the Norman conquest, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and so on. If it was good enough to settle a disagreement in the past by violence (or arbitrary political allegiance and sycophancy) then why is it different now? It isn’t. It is the same with our rivers.

Ridiculously, over 90% of our rivers are not accessible freely by the general public. So who “owns” the river? The water itself is ever-moving and so is only passing through one particular section of land at any one time. Clearly one cannot own a specific portion of the water. If one tries to, one will be following that piece of water along its length into the sea (more often than not). The fauna within and alongside the river are born, live and die without our ownership and generally we have little or no idea of their existence let alone possess the ability to own these lives. The trees, plants and flora that grow within and around the river manage to do so without paying us rent. We do not (and cannot) own them either. They blossom, fertilise, grow, spread, die decompose and re-cycle all without their need or knowledge of being “owned”. Indeed, the historic families and “houses” that were previously allocated the land are now no longer with us. The monks that built and managed the monasteries, the churches and cathedrals, the family estates of previous centuries have long gone in many cases but the land still exists. It may have changed appearance or use because of our management or mismanagement but it still there and will be there when we ourselves have shuffled off our respective mortal coils. A simple look at the many large, empty country estates that litter our country are testament to this. Once, the lucky sperm club lauded and lorded over these huge tracts of land but now, once the costs get too high and the inheritance too complex to trace or manage, they are gone. The owners are gone but the land is not. Who owns it then?

I am not espousing some new age hippy impractical theory here; I am attempting to highlight a fundamental issue within our society.

I have started working with some enlightened and progressive individuals and groups that aim to address this issue. The basic premise is based upon stewardship not ownership. We are looking into the fundamental components of ownership and management of land, property, resources and natural supplies. We are creating new organisational structures, contractual agreements, responsibilities and rewards. I use the current terminology for the sake of immediate understanding but these highly innovative individuals are focused on creating new models based upon the value of the resources and the respective flows and usage of this value rather than who owns the “asset” and what they expect to get back in terms of private gain. The return on these investments, for example, is not calculated in terms of compound interest on loans or borrowing but directly calculated in terms of how much is returned to the lender for the use (and value) of the resources.

Does this sound interesting? Then watch this space, I will be providing examples and real cases in the coming weeks. To quote my colleague and friend Chris Cook,

“21st century problems will not be solved by 20th century solutions” (or indeed 17th, 18th or 19th century rules). We need innovative and inclusive agreements across society that rewards stewardship, guardianship and mutual vested interest and genuine equitable co-operation to manage effectively the land and resources in the 21st century.

We are working to provide these and I look forward to reporting on progress in the coming weeks and months.

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