Boris Johnson’s attack on English planning laws is both very new and very old. It is new because it scraps the system for deciding how land should be used, replacing it with something closer to the US model. It is old because it represents yet another transfer of power from the rest of us to the lords of the land, a process that has been happening, with occasional reversals, since 1066.
A power that in 1947 was secured for the public – the democratic right to influence the building that affects our lives – is now being retrieved by building companies, developers and the people who profit most from development, the landowners. This is part of England’s long tradition of enclosure: seizing a common good and giving it to the rich and powerful. Democracy is replaced with the power of money.
Almost all of us, in England and many other nations, are born on the wrong side of the law. The disproportionate weight that the law gives to property rights makes nearly everyone a second-class citizen before they draw their first breath, fenced out of the good life we could lead.
Our legislation’s failure to moderate the claims of property denies other fundamental rights. Among them is equality before the law. If you own large tracts of land, a great weight of law sits on your side, defending your inordinate privileges from those who don’t. We are forbidden to exercise a crucial democratic right – the right to protest – on all but the diminishing pockets of publicly owned land. If we try to express dissent anywhere else, we can be arrested immediately.
The freedom to walk is as fundamental a right as freedom of speech, but in England it is denied across 92% of the land. Though we give landowners GBP3bn a year from our own pockets in the form of farm subsidies, we are banned from most of what we pay for. The big estates have seized and walled off the most beautiful vistas in England. In many parts of the country, we are confined to narrow footpaths across depressing landscapes, surrounded by barbed wire. Those who cannot afford to travel and stay in the regions with greater access (mostly in the north-west of England) have nowhere else to go.
The pandemic has reminded us that access to land is critical to our mental and physical wellbeing. Children in particular desperately need wild and interesting places in which they can freely roam. A large body of research, endorsed by the government, suggests that our mental health is greatly enhanced by connection to nature. Yet we are forced to skulk around the edges of our nation, unwelcome anywhere but in a few green cages and places we must pay to enter, while vast estates are reserved for single families to enjoy.
This government seeks not to redress the imbalance, but to exacerbate it. Its proposal to criminalise trespass would deny the rights of travelling people (Gypsies, Roma and Travellers) to pursue their lives. It also threatens to turn landowners’ fences into prison walls. Last week I discovered illegal quarrying in part of the River Honddu in Wales. Had I not been trespassing, I would not have seen it and had it stopped. Criminalising trespass would put free-range people outside the law, and landowners above the law.
The government’s proposed award to landowners and builders, of blanket planning permission across great tracts of England, will tilt the law even further towards property. Housing estates will be designed not for the benefit of those who live in them, but for the benefit of those who build them. We will see more vertical slums as office blocks are turned into housing, and more depressing suburbs without schools, shops, public transport or green spaces, entirely dependent on the car.
It will do nothing to solve our housing crisis, which is caused not by delays in the planning system but by developers hoarding land to keep prices high, homes used for investment rather than living, and the government’s lack of interest in social housing. By shutting down our objections, Johnson’s proposal is a direct attack on our freedoms. It is a gift to the property tycoons who have reportedly poured GBP11m into the Conservative party since he became prime minister: a gift seized from the rest of us.
But we will not watch passively as we are turned into even more inferior citizens. A new book seeks to challenge and expose the mesmerising power that landownership exerts on this country, and to show how we can challenge its presumptions. The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes, is massively researched but lightly delivered, a remarkable and truly radical work, loaded with resonant truths and stunningly illustrated by the author.
It shows how the great estates, from which we are excluded, were created by a combination of theft from the people of Britain (the enclosure of our commons) and theft from the people of other nations, as profits from the slave trade, colonial looting and much of the GBP30tn bled from India were invested into grand houses and miles of wall: blood money translated into neoclassical architecture.
It reveals how the “decorative pomp and verbose flummery” with which the great estates are surrounded disguises this theft, and disguises the rentier capitalism they continue to practise. It explains how the landowners’ walls divide the nation, not only physically but also socially and politically. It shows how the law was tilted away from the defence of people and towards the defence of things. It shows how trespass helps to breach the mental walls that keep us apart.
Accompanying the book is a new right to roam campaign calling for this right in England to be extended to rivers, woodland, downland and uncultivated land in the green belt, and to include camping, kayaking, swimming and climbing. This is less comprehensive than the rights in Scotland, which, despite the dire predictions of the landowners, have caused little friction and a massive improvement in public enjoyment. But it would greatly enhance the sense that the nation belongs to all of us rather than a select few. A petition to parliament launched by Guy Shrubsole, author of another crucial book, Who Owns England?, seeks to stop the criminalisation of trespass. Please sign it.
We can expect these efforts to be testerically opposed in the billionaire press. This is what happened when a group of us launched the Land for the Many report last year: it was greeted by furious attacks and outrageous falsehoods across the rightwing papers. Even the mildest attempts to rebalance our rights are treated as an existential threat by those whose privilege is ratified by law. But we cannot allow their fury to deter us. It is time to decolonise the land.
o George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist