Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (est.1894)

Book Review: Who Owns England by Guy Shrubsole, Williams Collins

Mel Bale, Trustee, Membership Secretary and Webmaster

This article is from Signpost 61, Autumn 2019

The CROW act of 2000 was a massive step forward in increasing the amount of land that the public can walk across without let or hindrance. However, as Guy Shrubsole points out in his book, Who Owns England, only about 10% of England and Wales has been classified as 'Open Access' land. In some parts of the country the area is considerably lower, for example the figure for west Berkshire is a mere 1.5%.

It would appear that the answer to the question posed by the book's title should be found in the Land Registry. In reality this is not always the case. Each request for data costs £3.00 and there are 24 million records held by the Land Registry, so the cost of accessing the entire data set would be £72 million! Ownership details for 17% of land isn’t held by the Land Registry, records only have to be submitted when ownership changes. The information held can be difficult to interpret and would be much more useful if it was combined with data from the Ordnance Survey and the Valuation Office. This proposal was in the last Conservative party manifesto but to date no progress has been made.

An early chapter titled England’s Darkest Secret is an account of how attempts to comprehensively document land ownership over the last 200 years have invariably failed for a range of reasons makes for intriguing reading. The subsequent chapters demonstrate the determination of the author and his colleague Anna Powell-Smith to uncover as much information as possible about land ownership in England.

The book is subtitled How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land and How to Take It Back. The author argues strongly that all information about who owns what land should be freely available and that land ownership laws should be reformed. Shrubsole claims that such reforms are vital in order to tackle issues such as the housing crisis, the threat to ecosystems, the pressures that farming will face when Britain leaves the EU and inequality in society. The book concludes with ‘An agenda for English land reform’. It is a 10 point plan which begins with completing and opening up the Land Registry and ends with the ‘instigation of a new land ethic’ which would ensure that responsibility goes hand in hand with ownership.

There is no doubt that the issues raised by the book are complex and possibly have a range of solutions. However, open access to the Land Registry, even with its current shortcomings would be very useful to PNFS in its work to locate potential Lost Ways. This would enable the relevant land owners to be quickly identified and subsequently involved in the process establishing whether a new Public Right of Way should be established.

The book is a fascinating insight into land ownership in England. It provides a detailed account of how the present situation has come about and poses very interesting questions what should happen in the future. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyone interested in the book should also take a look at the author’s BLOG and the Associated Interactive Map which has been designed by Anna Powell-Smith.

Next: Parish Notes ~ Hayfield

Page title:Book Review: Who Owns England by Guy Shrubsole, Williams Collins
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