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Whose land? Our land

More and more people are becoming interested in growing their own food. But our ability to take this essential step towards a sustainable future is being stifled by the radical inequalities of land distribution, in a country where patterns of land-ownership have changed little since feudal times, and the access to land of those who don’t own it has actually diminished. We will not be able to succeed in our Transition aims without challenging these inequalities and improving access to land for the many.

Land distribution in the UKAt a recent Transition discussion I was at, there was much talk of the value and importance of local food growing to a sustainable future. The merits of small-scale organic farming are many – reducing the oil-dependency of our food-chains, and reducing our own dependence on systems which destroy biodiversity and alienate us from our environment. Rising food prices are a direct result of climate change and decreasing oil supplies, and are a key aspect of the social injustices embedded within these twin crises as the poorest suffer most – both globally and in our own country. For these reasons, and for many others (perhaps mostly just because it’s fun), more and more people are starting to grow their own food, which is a fantastic thing.

But there is a problem: there doesn’t seem to be enough land. Allotment waiting lists have been rising rapidly across the country, in some places as much as 15 years long, and the price of land is also on the rise. More of us than ever live in apartments, without any garden to dig, and those who vision the future of our cities seem determined that this trend should continue.

There are some really useful initiatives going on to mitigate this situation. Some Transition Town run garden-sharing projects, to match up those who want to grow with those who haven’t got the time to keep up their garden; and there’s an interesting project originating in Manchester called Allotment Finder, which is trying to get the data about the different waiting lists for different sites and inform people who are searching for space where they might be able to find it more quickly.

But fundamentally, these are just sticking plasters for a crippling disease. In the UK, 0.3% of people own 67% of all the land in the country. It’s no wonder that the other 99.7% struggle to share out the remainder between us: to find enough space for our lettuces or for our community spaces. Not only is the ownership of land centralised in the hands of a tiny group of aristocrats, little changed over hundreds of years, but large swathes of land are desperately under-used and ill-managed. The UK consists of about 60 million acres. Admittedly not all of this is cultivable, but we do not lack in fertile land on this island. Even in an inner-city borough, a little walk around your neighbourhood will probably reveal numerous empty plots and scraps, going to waste. Without enabling people to access this land, there is no way that they can start to transition to a more sustainable way of life.

It is not a coincidence that access to land is a core issue in the achievement of our aims: the removal of access was a core element in the onward march of capitalism which has brought us into the unsustainable present. As land was gradually claimed and enclosed from the commons, those who were left without land had to find other means to earn money, in order to buy food and to rent back the space to live in from the landowners who had taken it all. In some parts of the world, this process is happening right now, igniting resistance from indigenous groups such as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, the Landless Workers’ Movement.


The ZADInternationally, many groups are struggling on this issue. Reclaim the Fields, for example, is a Europe-wide network of community food growers who are very concerned about access to land, and Grow Heathrow – the squatted market garden where I live - is part of this network. In May last year I joined a RtF event in France, where about 200 people took over and cleared an abandoned field that lies in the path of another proposed airport near Nantes – you can read more about it HERE. The current government’s attempts to criminalise squatting will make it even more difficult for people to reclaim land to grow and live on, reinforcing the existing injustices at a time when a radical rethink is more necessary than ever.

This is my final post as a social reporter. I have enjoyed the opportunity to speak up as a member of Transition Heathrow and have also enjoyed reading what everyone else is up to. Thank you Charlotte and everyone else involved behind the scenes for making it all happen!


Justin Kenrick's picture

So . . .

". . . In the UK, 0.3% of people own 67% of all the land in the country" and "a radical rethink is more necessary than ever"

What do we do about this? Land seems such a background issue to most people. It's jobs and cash and homes that count . . . I wonder how we open this out? How do we make clear that all the wealth that matters comes down to land, and if someone has more than their fair share they are depriving someone else of theirs?

How do we have fluid responsible community ownership which welcomes in those who want to productively use and enhance the land, and quietly says no to those who want to hoard, exploit or control the land?

A simple set of questions . . . . !

Jo Homan's picture

Thanks Joe for your posts

I've enjoyed reading about T Heathrow. Just wondering how we can get beyond the polemic, 'us and them' thing. This is what leads to the most destructive, wasteful use of resources of them all: war. What is the intelligent way to deal with inequality on this scale, I wonder?

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

thank you

Great post Joe. Fiery, real, informative, challenging, like all your posts. Hearing about and visiting Grow Heathrow inspired me to have my own radical rethink about many things. Especially about the dynamic between activism and Transition and the benefits you gain by having a shared space in the heart of a community.

Hope your art project goes really well in Jan (sounds awesome). Thank you for being with us in these pilot months. You will  always be welcome to post in 2012 when the Social Reporting project starts up again.

Warmest wishes to you and everyone at Grow Heathrow,