Oz Blog News Commentary

Finding Our Feet

August 21, 2020 - 16:13 -- Admin

Landed power, built on theft, slavery and colonial looting,
crushes our freedoms. It is time to reclaim them.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th
August 2020

Boris Johnson’s attack on our planning laws is both very new and
very old. It is new because it scraps the English 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 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
. Though we give landowners £3
billion 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) have nowhere else to go.

The pandemic has reminded us that access to land is critical
to our mental and physical well-being
. 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 mentioned the illegal
of the River Honddhu I discovered. 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 not caused 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 poured
million 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. Launched today, 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 $45
trillion 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 practice. 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 campaign
, calling for the right to roam in England to be extended to
rivers, woodland, downland and uncultivated land in the greenbelt, 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, has caused little
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

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.