The Walls Are Closing In

When it comes to property rights, you may think of landlord disputes, housing inequality or real-estate monopolies. You may conjure images of homeless people shunned by spiked architecture, deterring them from occupying the local cubby hole that offers a slither of shelter betwixt two buildings. Often, this is in sharp contrast to nearby, affluent areas and their inhabitants attempting to maintain local ‘reputability’.

Despite the glaring reality of oppression, many people still agree with the rights of others to own vast amounts of land and housing. It doesn’t matter how such homes are being used (if at all), the right to own, run, and profit from multiple sites is seen as a matter of freedom.

This view ignores or deems irrelevant the fact that roughly 648,114 homes in the UK in 2019 were unused. Just over a third of these could have been occupied by the estimated 280,517 homeless people during that same year. In our individualist and competitive society, they were simply the ones who lost, right? 

Associating these two statistics is attacked as undermining the hard work of those working in the property industry. Focussing on inequalities, the argument goes, ignores the investment, risk, and time taken on by property owners. Indeed, many people do work hard to renovate and improve housing and are even ‘fair’ landlords. Though however reasonable the emerging property owners in the upwardly mobile managerial middle-class, archaic property laws in the UK systemically benefit the vastly wealthy.

The legacy of the British Empire

One concrete example of this is the repayments to former slave-owning families under the UK’s ‘Slave Compensation Act’ of 1837 that only ended in 2015. Although many of these families would have profited off land they owned and perhaps even continue to own, they were nevertheless compensated for their loss of ‘assets’ (i.e., slaves).

It is deplorable that payments of this kind were made almost 200 years after emancipation. Considering that such historical legacies contribute to current racial housing inequalities, this money ought to have been instead distributed to families inflicted by slavery. Furthermore, that the Bank of England and British Government refuse to release the list of families who received bond payments is an indication of their class and political power.

It is no stretch to describe land ownership as a class-project aimed at extracting capital from the necessity of housing in the interests of the wealthy. Meanwhile, those who suffer squabble amongst themselves over differing political ideologies while the power of the 1% goes largely unchallenged.

Looming over the lower and middle classes are corporate big wigs and lords of the land; especially when unclaimed monies are in the air. If a person dies in Cornwall with no will or immediate kin, their wealth is extracted and distributed right to the top, directly to Prince Charles. Forget about local community projects, the lands lordship will sniff out and hoover every coin with his remarkably regal nostrils. 

The issue is not thy neighbour using well-off parents to secure a deposit for a home. The problem is the immeasurably wealthy controlling the rights to the overwhelming majority of land and with it our lives. Land ownership casts a net so wide that it ensnares all value and strips it away from the everyday person towards noble elites. However, most people live in suitable enough housing and get by far better than in the days of yesteryear. 

The consequences of changing property rights

As time progresses, the standard of living improves. It is difficult to grasp the notion of housing-driven oppression from a warm bed and branded pyjamas. Property dilemmas are a fleeting thought for most. The lack of freedoms are rarely rectified because the system is sufficiently comfortable for most.

Yet, in unrelenting fashion, property rights are extending further than our homes. New battles are being fought outside the castle and in the fields, forests, and rivers we walk upon. Now, it is our very landscape we need to fight for to avoid becoming a nation full of caged hens. It is no longer just the hapless homeless in the firing line.

In terms of policy, this is the conservative manifesto, which aims to turn ‘trespassing’ from a civil offence to a criminal one. Already, 92% of land in England is off limits to the public and now landowners may secure the power to strip access away from more of us. Although we may have surpassed the medieval era in terms of housing standards, freedom of movement remains in favour of landowners.

This draconian land banking is being framed by political conservatives as a crackdown on the travelling community in an effort to move them onto local authority sites. Such nomadic lifestyles are not compatible with modern property laws and housing commodification. Considering that 75% of police officers and commissioners believe existing powers are sufficient to address harmful behaviours by members of such groups, the policy seems more an issue of class-struggle and oppression than safety and security.

Though aimed directly at internal travellers, all citizens will catch a glare in the government’s periphery. It is an assault on us all. Not only will private individuals be able to turf you off land but in theory this legislation can silence and remove protest from private spaces. Eventually, we may be left fenced into small areas; our sense of adventure pulverised, with no means to fight back. Anti-frackers and anti-roads campaigners will also be criminalised from the onset. 

A bleak future for freedom

On a more general level this will give landowners the chance to criminalise harmless and often accidental trespass. It would send a signal that the countryside is not accessible to all, but a place of complex rules and regulations where those partaking in recreational activities such as walking, cycling, or camping in the countryside may be at risk of committing a crime. 

In this world, police become internal border-guards, defending the rich from us: the everyday plague. The conservatives may not close national borders during a pandemic, but they will prevent you from visiting a few spots of land and receiving fresh air. During such times, the human right to nature is undeniably important for our mental health and wellbeing. It is an irrefutable injustice.

No matter what imagery private property rights evokes in your head, be critical of this populist guise to attack our general freedoms. Fresh air is not just a right for those with an expensive national trust membership. Land rights and housing inequality affect us all, no matter how comfortable your bed.


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