“What is the most neglected issue in British politics? I would say land. Literally and metaphorically, land underlies our lives, but its ownership and control have been captured by a tiny number of people. The results include soaring inequality and exclusion; the massive cost of renting or buying a decent home; the collapse of wildlife and ecosystems; repeated financial crises; and the loss of public space. Yet for 70 years this crucial issue has scarcely featured in political discussions.
Today, I hope, this changes, with the publication of the report to the Labour party – Land for the Many – that I’ve written with six experts in the field. Our aim is to put this neglected issue where it belongs: at the heart of political debate and discussion.
Since 1995, land values in this country have risen by 412%. Land now accounts for an astonishing 51% of the UK’s net worth. Why? In large part because successive governments have used tax exemptions and other advantages to turn the ground beneath our feet into a speculative money machine. A report published this week by Tax Justice UK reveals that, through owning agricultural land, 261 rich families escaped £208m in inheritance tax in 2015-16. Because farmland is used as a tax shelter, farmers are being priced out. In 2011, farmers bought 60% of the land that was on the market; within six years this had fallen to 40%.
Homes are so expensive not because of the price of bricks and mortar, but because land now accounts for 70% of the price
Worse still, when planning permission is granted on agricultural land, its value can rise 250-fold. Though this jackpot was created by society, the owner gets to keep most of it. We pay for this vast inflation in land values through outrageous rents and mortgages. Capital gains tax is lower than income tax, and council tax is proportionately more expensive for the poor than for the rich. As a result of such giveaways, and the amazing opacity of the system, land in the UK has become a magnet for international criminals seeking to launder their money.
We pay for these distortions every day. Homes have become so expensive not because the price of bricks and mortar has risen, but because the land that underlies them now accounts for 70% of their price. Twenty years ago, the average working family needed to save for three years to afford a deposit. Today, it must save for 19 years. Life is even worse for renters. While housing costs swallow 12% of average household incomes for those with mortgages, renters pay 36%.
Because we hear so little about the underlying issues, we blame the wrong causes for the cost and scarcity of housing: immigration, population growth, the green belt, red tape. In reality, the power of landowners and building companies, their tax and financial advantages and the vast shift in bank lending towards the housing sector have inflated prices so much that even a massive housebuilding programme could not counteract them.
The same forces are responsible for the loss of public space in cities, a right to roam that covers only 10% of the land, the lack of provision for allotments and of opportunities for new farmers, and the wholesale destruction of the living world. Our report aims to confront these structural forces and take back control of the fabric of the nation. …”