Who owns the UK? This is a perennial favourite for newspaper articles and has spawned a series of books. There is no simple answer as wealth can be measured in different ways: cash, shares, GDP and, most tantalisingly of all, land.
Land has always been an emotive issue and, even when the vast majority of people no longer work in primary industries, it continues to generate interest, debate and concern. Peasants’ revolts, riots over enclosure and the Luddite movement have given way to conservation areas, local amenity societies and ‘not in my back yard’ pressure groups.
So, back to the original question; who owns the UK? And how has ownership changed over the last century. To answer this, I’m taking ownership of land as the measure. Millions of acres, hectares and square miles of rolling, arable, pastoral, mountainous and forested land. There is no direct correlation with wealth in this list; owning vast tracts of Highland Scotland can, in terms of value, equal a single block of central London real estate.
But there is still something fascinating about seeing how landownership has evolved in the UK. It tells a story that is relevant to both British history and contemporary British society.
In 1872, nine aristocrats were included in the list of top ten landowners in Britain. The only non-aristocratic entry was the Church of England, the nation’s greatest landowner with 2.2 million acres. This is an area equal to the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk combined.
The Duke of Sutherland was not far behind, with 1.4 million acres (appropriately enough, roughly equal to the county of Sutherland or Northumberland). A further clutch of dukes, earls and mere barons and knights made up the rest of the top ten with a combined land ownership of 2.75 million acres.
By 2010, the top ten had changed completely, with only one name on both lists: the Duke of Buccleuch. The Duke’s land holdings had shrunk from 460,000 to 240,000 acres, but that was still enough to place him eight on the list. Only two other entries in the top ten could claim aristocratic distinction: the Crown Estates (360,000 acres) and the Duke of Atholl’s trusts (150,000 acres).
So who now owns Britain? In some ways, the general public does. Mass membership organisations have extensive land holdings: the National Trust protects 630,000 acres whilst its Scottish counterpart has 190,000 under its care. In addition, the RSPB has 320,000 acres. Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust add another 300,000 acres. Pension funds have also diversified investments into land and, in 2010, owned 550,000 acres.
The government is a major landowner, with the Forestry Commission owning 2.6 million acres and the Ministry of Defence a further 560,000 acres. Finally, the utility companies own 500,000 acres, including thousands of acres of reservoir and surrounding water catchment areas.
The Church of England has been reduced to a rump estate of ‘just’ 120,000 acres, whilst many aristocratic families had to sell off vast tranches of their estates to cover death duties and household costs. The trend continues to this day, with families now selling off valuable artwork to stay afloat. Still, the 26 ducal estates combined still amount to an impressive 1 million acres.
For further comparison, Greater London covers just over 390,000 acres, Cornwall extends to just under 900,000 acres, Cumbria stretches across 1.6 million acres and Yorkshire covers just under 3 million acres.