Opinion: Our Green and Pleasant Land – and Councillors’ powers

Our peaceful occupation of land in England for leisure or gardening or amenity is the result of a century of struggles for land access. “He who controls the land controls the life of the people”: and our native soil was alienated to landlords by the Enclosure movement and in Scotland by the vicious Highlands Clearances; and today such risks are still real. Fortunately Liberals began a defence of the people’s land-rights in the reforms of the 1906-1911 Parliament.

More land cannot be produced by landlords no matter how high its price goes. Charging more for it is no remedy for its scarcity, however fashionable such views sometimes become by those who argue for land or site rent increases. The better future lies in fairer access for the majority, not restricting it to the wealthy by excluding or patronising the poor, and fairer access is what the Liberal reforms from 1906 onward aimed for.

The 1908 Small Holding Act marked a turning-point in this struggle for decency. All 8500 civil parishes in England, along with the larger councils where parishes are missing, are now providing, as a result, statutory allotment garden authorities. They have the duty to provide land to the citizens when six or more ask them to look for it, a rare example of truly benevolent legislation. It is land for amenity, keeping hens and rabbits, growing food, conservation, health as a “green gym”. We have achieved a democratic means to protect and build up a great national asset for our communities if we band together and use it. Sadly the Small Holding element has been eroded, but could be restored.

Unfortunately this excellent state of affairs has come under attack from the old “investment finacialisation”, reinforced by the weird “free market” idea that paying more for land somehow creates more of it. The price-system and private landlords cannot create more land, nor can they take into account the social, environmental and health benefits that access to land offers. In spite of noble examples private benevolence has not yet produced the abundance of long-term low-cost community land assets we need.

The 1908 Act restricts eviction by cash-strapped local authorities and others (there is a power to buy the land), and frees us from profit-taking owners. Private provision too often means no compensation for improvements, no security of tenure, no long-term guarantees or community inheritance. The sacred beauty and variety of nature is profaned, community tradition destroyed and the cultivators dispossessed. – And now people are sometimes tricked by the promises of land-banking.

So Liberal Democrats! – We urgently need to use the powers of democratic acquisition of land, as green space and amenity and in fairness, wherever parishes and towns and Districts flinch from this duty and the people want it.

* Michael Parsons has had a long interest in politics since being an active student Liberal in the late fifties and early sixties.

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