In The New Enclosure, Brett Christophers documents the sale of publicly owned land in the UK over the last four decades. His historically grounded account reveals that, by his estimates, 10% of nationally owned land has been privatised. He highlights the breadth of the land that has been sold, the geography of the sales and as such the resulting socio-economic spatial disparities. Using examples from across the UK including different departments within the public sector, from National Rail to the more prominently researched sale of state-owned housing, Christophers redefines the terms of the privatisation debate. He asserts the necessity of understanding privatisation through a discussion of land, returning, as the book’s name suggests, to Marxist understandings of the ‘enclosure’. In centring land, he highlights the importance of understanding how, even in situations where land seems to be an ‘add-on’, it can be, and has been, the underlying source of value for buyers. Christophers begins The New Enclosure with an overview of the relevant theories in which his study is grounded, largely a political economy approach, before historicising the narrative in Chapter 2. In Chapter 3 he outlines the rationale for the privatisation of land and lays the groundwork for his important critique of the process, drawing not only on the views of the political left, but also the issues at the heart of the right’s original rationales. Turning to the impact of the sale in the later chapters, Christophers makes use of Marx, Smith and Polanyi to evaluate the social and economic consequences across the UK.
Perhaps most crucially, in terms of his contribution to theory-building in the context of decades of debating the meaning of ‘neoliberalism’, Christophers adds to discussions on what the defining feature of neoliberalism is or might be. In the opening chapter he takes pains to justify the book’s subtitle ‘The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain’ (emphasis added). He explains that he chose to use the term because it delineates a specific time period since the 1970s defined by a particular political rationale, and because he wishes to contribute to the debates on what neoliberalism is in practice. Throughout the book, Christophers argues that it is privatisation which has defined the neoliberal period, as privatisation distinguishes neoliberalism from liberalism. Different chapters highlight the role of property developers and of lobbying in this process.
Crucially, linking forward to arguments on what the solution might be (and back to Massey’s 1970s work), Christophers suggests that re-nationalisation is not necessarily the answer, if the state does not use the land for the public good either. In this respect he connects in a timely manner to debates on the role of public bodies in real estate development. In this interview, Frances Brill and Christophers discuss the implications of this work for urban theory building; its significance beyond academic debates; and the methods used.
One review of your book notes that you unapologetically use the phrase ‘rentier economy’ and indeed there is a large section on rentier capitalism. Your book therefore directly contributes to the large critical political economy work challenging contemporary rentiership. In an urban context, I think this speaks to emerging narratives on cities as ‘landscapes of accumulation’ (e.g. Searle, 2016), so I wanted to ask you how you feel the example of privatisation of land in the UK helps continue this theoretical work?
A good question. In this book, I was trying to make, more than anything else, a set of empirical and political arguments, probably more than I was trying to make set of theoretical arguments – if it’s credible to think in those three different terms.
The theoretical aspect of it, for me, was definitely the least important of the three. First of all, I was trying to tell an empirical story, which for a variety of different reasons hadn’t been told, and that I thought was important to tell. And secondly, I was trying to make clear that that empirical story has lots of significant political consequences. And then really the theoretical aspect of it was in third place. All I was trying to do there really was put forward a set of ideas that I found useful in trying to think about it, in more structural ways. So that’s what I did in Chapter 1 of the book. And you know, some of the sets of ideas that I found useful were a set of ideas about things like market failure and what market failure looks like, or might potentially look like in relation to land, and the provision of different land uses by different landowners.
Another thing I was trying to think about was what happens when you commodify land – when you turn it into something that is not public land – but is owned by the private sector. And why might markets in land look different or unique, or somewhat alternative, to markets in other types of commodities and that’s where I draw on the Polanyi ideas.
The third thing I was trying to draw upon was Harvey’s ideas about the contradictory dynamics that we get with land markets. On the one hand, in terms of ideas around allocative efficiency and land: how land markets perform a kind of coordinating function. And on the other hand, you get this inherent tendency towards speculative forces that tends to disrupt dynamics. By putting together those ideas I was trying to think about, a bit more conceptually, what we might expect to see, or at least what we might look for, when you have a substantial quantum of land moving from public ownership to private ownership. In doing so it was very difficult to avoid ideas of rentierism. You know, talking about this modus operandi of capitalism, where what becomes most important is control of an exclusive asset.
I think it’s fairly clear in the book that land rentierism has become an increasingly significant activity in the UK in recent decades. And I think it’s also clear that pumping increasing amounts of land into private ownership – privatisation – has really boosted that phenomenon. It has provided a growing stock of assets for rentiers to work with. And it’s also often provided that at a very low cost and that’s the other significant thing .- One of the great ironies, maybe ironies isn’t the right word, that’s been going on historically in the UK is that the state, from the early 1980s, started selling an asset that, at precisely that moment in time, was on the cusp of becoming far and away the most valuable asset that the UK has.
Since the ONS (the UK Office of National Statistics) in the last 18 months or so started breaking down national wealth into its constituent parts in a more granular way than it did historically, it’s only then that people have begun to recognise quite how significant land is to wealth, to the stock of overall national wealth. You see that and you think: ‘Oh my God, the state has actually been not just selling, but in many cases giving away the very thing that is most valuable in the UK’. And that’s not only had a significant impact on public finances, but obviously also on private finances. That wealth has landed up primarily in the hands of a rentier class that is corporate, but to a certain extent it’s a residential private rentier class as well, in so far as much of the land being held is housing land, residential land. So I think if you want to tell a wider story about rentierism in the UK under neoliberalism then land is obviously a pivotal part of that story. It’s not the only part – there’s financial rents, intellectual property rents and all sorts of other rents – but land is absolutely central to it.
Is the UK different to other places in this regard?
A good question, but I don’t think it’s a very easy question to answer and I don’t necessarily have a very good answer. The fact that the UK is a relatively small place in the big scheme of things makes a difference. I also think it makes a difference that the UK economy is so massively concentrated on London. Which means that control and ownership of land in and around London is a hugely important phenomenon, not just locally but in terms of the national economy more broadly. I think there are some specificities around the UK and specifically around the control of land in the South-East. But I don’t know enough about comparative contexts to be able to answer that question any better than that.
You speak in the book of the temporality of the process of land sale, and this clearly speaks to political and economic cycles. I wondered whether you could speak on the role you think changing macroeconomic conditions – and the politics of the different governments you mention – have had on the sale of land?
One of the points I try to really emphasise is that, as far as I could tell in doing the research, from the start this has been a programme. It has been a project and it has been centrally directed and driven. It would be very easy, I think, if you tried to do this sort of research and you did it in a different way to look at it from the bottom up. If you were to look at the vast array of public bodies that have been selling land over the last forty years (local authorities, public corporations, different departments of government), you could potentially come to the conclusion that all these different bodies have independently taken decisions that selling land and selling their assets is what they should be doing. But I think that would be completely wrong. I think what the evidence shows is that this has been a project driven from Whitehall, the Prime Minister’s Office, it’s being driven out of the Cabinet Office and in particular the Treasury. And it’s sort of been filtered out from there to the rest of the public sector, where all those different types of public bodies that I talked about have been encouraged, cajoled and pressured and sometimes even compelled into disposing of their land. I’m sure some of those public bodies and the people responsible for running them have in certain places, at certain times, been fairly willing to go along with that and have probably thought that’s what they should be doing. But it’s equally clear that lots of them have absolutely not been okay with that program, and have not thought that’s what they should be doing, and to some degree or other have questioned it or resisted it. That’s the first thing to say.
To some extent the question then becomes: why has this been a program that central government has pursued so relentlessly for the last forty years or so? Is it a program that’s driven by macroeconomic circumstances, or is it a program that is driven by, for example, ideology? Is it a program that’s driven by the capture of central government by the rentier sector, for want of a better articulation? I think, as always with these things, there’s probably a bit of truth in all of those explanations. My sense is that macroeconomic conditions have not been a primary consideration. I think that the story is significantly one of successive government administrations who have genuinely drunk the neoliberal juice, and have pursued an agenda that is based on the supposition that the government should own as little as possible. Including, but not only, land. This is based on the belief that there’s no inherent reason for land to be held publicly, and it’s better off held privately where it’s going to be held to its highest and best use, where it’s going to be used efficiently. Even if that entails the public sector sometimes leasing land back from the private sector.
To be sure those beliefs have been encouraged by the private sector, there’s been no shortage of lobbying and I’ve tried to write about this a little bit – lobbying and donations, for example from property developers and other property companies. But I think it has, to a significant extent, been ideologically driven.
Having said that, it has occurred in waves. Over that 40 year period (1970s to 2010s) it has not been a consistent rate of disposal, it’s going up and down over time. For sure, macroeconomic conditions have played into that. The clearest way that’s visible is the ramping up of land privatisation since the financial crisis. Where the austerity agenda has really kicked in very strongly with the idea that land sales is one way of re-balancing the public books. But it’s not the only rationale that’s been involved. Over the last decade, as I’m sure you know, land sale as a way of delivering more houses in the face of the housing crisis has been another rationale that’s been invoked quite strongly.
One of my favourite parts of reading books, especially ones as thoroughly researched as yours, is the acknowledgements and dedications because I think it really highlights the context of how the analysis has developed, including sources of academic inspiration. As many of the reviews have also noted, you dedicate the book to Doreen Massey and you mention her influence in terms of theory but also her work from the 1970s. I am particularly interested in her emphasis on what landownership means and enables for the landowner. How do you see this in the context of land sales in somewhere like London, which still has some patches of land owned by the Greater London Authority (GLA), but where land pressure is so huge?
I think there’s so many different issues to factor in here. I think those issues apply at the national level, but in a sense they’re accentuated in London. For various reasons. If you think about a public land owner like the GLA – but we can think about local authorities elsewhere in the county that are sitting on land – if one of the things that they want to see is the use of that land for the provision of new housing, they can do that in a number of different ways. They can retain the land themselves and they can build social housing, council housing, through the Housing Revenue Account. They can retain the land themselves, and they can use one of the growing number of wholly or partly-owned local authority housing companies to build housing which may not be – and in fact in many cases certainly wouldn’t be – social housing in its entirety. Much will be market housing for sale or for rent. Some might be social housing, but certainly lots of it won’t be. Or they can dispose of that land to other entities to build housing on it. And one way they could do that is to sell to community groups, to a community land trust, to build housing that would absolutely not be market housing in any shape or form. Or they can sell the land to the private sector and when they do that, what they’ll often do is say ‘we’re going to sell this land to you, but the quid pro quo is that you’ll have to provide a level of so-called affordable housing in order to get planning permission and proceed with the development’. So there’s a whole host of options available for the local authority, or GLA, for doing that.
And clearly there’s all sorts of considerations that the landowning body has to factor in when it does that. It has to think about what types of housing it wants to see delivered locally. But it also has to think about its own balance sheet, and the question of the amount of money it’s going to get, if it decides to sell the land. And of course this has been one of the issues with the provision of affordable, genuinely affordable, housing… councils in many senses find themselves in a bit of bind. If you sell, if you really want affordable housing to be provided in significant measure, then by necessity you need to sell the land at a lower price than if you’re going to do a development that’s going to build luxury flats.
So councils find themselves in an almost double bind, which is that if you sell for less than the best consideration – less than market value – then you are able to provide a modicum of social benefits locally. But, at the same time, you are not providing the kind of boost to local authority finances that authorities need, given the cuts in central grants that have been occurring in the last decade.
Whereas if they say on the other hand ‘we need to sell this land for as much as we can’, then by definition the private sector is only going to provide the types of housing that maximise return, to cover the land prices they have to pay. Anyone that thinks local authorities are in a simple situation doesn’t really know what they’re talking about in that sense. In London all those pressures are accentuated in one way or another. So are we going to continue seeing this happen? It’s the default policy position coming from central government, whether it’s stated as that or otherwise. While given what we’ve seen in recent decades in terms of the outcome of land privatisation, there’s very little evidence that anything genuinely positive has come out of it.
In Chapter 5, and in your work on developers and section 106 (an agreement made between the state and developers about their contribution in terms of social housing), you talk about the lack of rules in the sale of land and how we can’t just blame profit-seeking entities for being profit-seeking. I remember you mentioning, during a panel at the 2018 AAG conference in New Orleans, the current Labour leadership, so I wondered if you could speak about your ideas on how to change the system?
I think all the noises that have been coming out of that camp within Labour suggest that such an administration would take a very different approach from what we see today. I think that such a government would really turn away from disposal as the default policy position. And you would expect to see land being retained, land being used, for a new generation of council housing – on whatever scale. And I think you might even expect to see the public sector at large not just holding on to its land, but perhaps even beginning to rebuild stocks of public land through the acquisition of land, possibly using transformed compulsory purchase powers in order to do that. I think you could expect to see something very different.
The UK, to different degrees and in different ways across the country, is experiencing what is often classified as a ‘housing crisis’. In your book you mention the ubiquitous presence of Savills (an international real estate consultancy). Could you elaborate on the actors you see as important in the privatisation of land?
There’s a whole set of different private sector actors that have been implicated, involved in one way or another, in precipitating and encouraging the privatisation process in recent decades. Off the top of my head I think there’s probably three or four. One of those I guess we could call owner-occupied in the private sector. A good example would be a company like Tesco. The operating model of big out-of-town grocery retailers (and other owner-occupiers as well) is based to a significant extent on land ownership, and land acquisition. Tesco and other retailers – and for example the Big Yellow storage company – they’re in the business of land acquisition, that’s absolutely critical to their business model. They’ve certainly been keen buyers of public sector land in recent decades, and they’ve not been averse to encouraging that process.
Another one would be what you would call ‘speculative purchasers’, who are buying land entirely in the hope of making rentier gains in one way or another. One way of doing that is buying land and renting it out. Perhaps more importantly than that is buying the land from the government and hoping to sell it on, at a later date at a higher price. A good example of that would be some of the big financial institutions that have been major buyers of land in the UK, say Legal & General (L&G) and Aviva. There’s at least anecdotal evidence that L&G has been buying land around London that doesn’t have planning permission and then hoping that eventually planning permission will be forthcoming, which obviously leads to a massive uplift in land value, and then realising those gains from selling it on to land developers. There’s definitely a class of speculative investor that has been buying public land, not with any plans to use it in any meaningful way, but with a view to securing speculative gains on that land.
And then the third one and maybe, in the scheme of things, the biggest one: property developers and house builders, who have obviously been in the news a lot in recent years for the fact that they’re making enormous profits. The likes of Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon and Berkeley Group and others, who buy land with a view to building houses on it. One of the key things I try to emphasise in the book is that this is not a straightforward story. It’s a story where lots of land enters the land banks of these property developers and then, rather than being built on rapidly, tends to sit there, for a variety of different reasons. One reason seems to be that one of the ways that the property development sector keeps house prices high is undersupplying the property market: holding back from development until the price is right, so to speak. Clearly that sector has been a major source of lobbying of government in recent decades. It is definitely one of the main sources of critique of public land ownership, of the argument that the government shouldn’t be sitting on this land, as in: ‘It shouldn’t be hoarding land, it should be handing it over to the private sector where it can be used productively and efficiently’.
Alongside those three sets of actors, there’s a fourth category, which is the one you referred to: private sector actors that are interested in land privatisation, not because they want to buy that land themselves, which all three of the aforementioned categories are, but because they have an economic interest in the process of privatisation. And obviously major commercial real-estate interests like Savills, and like Knight Frank, which also crops up repeatedly in the book, they have a very clear interest in the government selling significant quantities of land to the private sector, because they want to win the government contract to be the agent that sells that land. So if you read reports from Savills in recent years, they repeatedly publish reports on how much land the public sector is sitting on. They have an economic interest in doing that. The reason they’re doing that is that they want to sell that land, they want to win the contract to sell it.
So there’s at least four fairly unique sets of corporate interests that are against public land ownership because it’s in their interest for that land to be sold. And I wouldn’t say that those categories are water tight; there are various overlaps between them. There are those four sets of interests, and there is a fifth set of interests, which is less corporate, namely private individuals who are interested in the land that exists under housing and that sits under council housing.
As is well known, much of the land that has been sold by the state in recent decades is housing land that’s been sold primarily through the Right to Buy program. And lots of individuals have made handsome economic gains by buying at a discount and in many cases selling it on at a later date. There’s been lots of stuff in the press recently about the amount of stock that was originally sold under Right to Buy that has ultimately ended up as private sector rental housing, either being let by people who originally bought it or where they have sold it on to residential landlords.
The key thing, from my perspective, is that this story is a significantly a land story. If you look at the data and the estimates that were made, if you go back to the 1930s, estimates suggest that 2-3% of the value of residential property was comprised of the land. Today, most figures estimate it’s in excess of 70%, and in various parts of the country, especially London, the percentage is much higher than that. So when people in Britain today buy housing, they’re primarily buying land. And I think that’s another thing I was trying to really push quite strongly in the book: the housing market story is ultimately a land market story.
Given the political salience of the research (and potential for political dispute surrounding the findings), have you experienced any difficulties justifying the reliability of your findings?
I guess you’re talking about the numbers about the amount of land that’s been sold. As one example, the Guardian a couple of weeks ago ran an editorial – a lead editorial – talking about these numbers and making the point that it’s an important story that hasn’t been told before. Before they published that story, I had quite a few conversations with one of the main opinion writers who had read the book, but his one source of nervousness about them running the story was: how reliable are the figures? So absolutely people that have wanted to use these figures want to be sure that the figures are robust, for want of a better word. So yes, I have had to defend those figures. I think at the end of the day, the reality is that there never will be an exact figure for the amount of land that has been sold in the UK during that period. This is for a couple of related reasons but the main one, as I say in the book, is that government record keeping across the public sector over that forty year period has been not only variable but also, in general, not very good. So it’s simply the case that many public bodies that exist today wouldn’t be able to tell you. Even if they felt inclined to tell you, they wouldn’t be able to tell you how much land has been sold under their ownership in the last few decades.
Even in some of the bigger public bodies – central government departments – they have only really begun relatively recently to keep good records of what has been sold, where and to whom and for what price. So it will never really be known. The only thing we can ever estimate, as I do in the book, is to say ‘What do we really know about how much land the public sector owns today, and what do we know about how much land the public sector owned in the late 1970s, when the process began?’. And then we get an estimate.
I feel pretty confident that the numbers I have are ballpark right. I say that because I think we know quite a lot about how much land the public sector owns today. It’s clear that it’s about 2 million hectares, simply because our level of knowledge about land ownership today is much better than it has been historically. There’s lots of good research that’s been done by investigative reporters, activists in some cases, and that data is publicly available on the internet now. We know less about how much was owned in the late 1970s but there were a series of researchers in that decade that undertook the task of working out how much land the public sector owned, and they all came up with relatively similar figures, in the region of 20% of land in the late 1970s. So I think that the numbers in the book are ballpark correct. Are they exact? No definitely not, precisely because we don’t know how much the public sector owned in the late 1970s, we only have an estimate. But the numbers are in the region of what the exact numbers are. At the same time, I can understand why people who want to draw on those figures have a certain degree of nervousness and want some sort of reassurance that the numbers they’re using aren’t going to come back and haunt them later.
Your book has received a lot of attention beyond academia. What has that been like?
Because I thought it was a story that is important and significant to many different types of people, that was one of the main reasons I went with Verso, with a publisher whose books do tend to get read outside of academia. Partly because I knew it was a story that was important politically as much as anything else, but also where I started: I never intended for it to be an academic book. The theory aspect of it to me was the least important. I always wanted it to be as accessible as it possibly could. I think and hope it’s a book – apart perhaps from parts of Chapter 1 – that is completely comprehensible and understandable. But even so, I’ve definitely been surprised by the fact that it does seem to have been picked up outside of academic spaces.
Searle, L. G. (2016) Landscapes of Accumulation: Real Estate and the Neoliberal Imagination in Contemporary India. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Frances Brill is a Research Fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL, London. She is currently working on “What is Governed in Cities?”, a comparative project that analyses how investment into residential real estate is governed across London, Paris and Amsterdam. Her recently completed PhD in Geography critically engaged with the role of real estate developers in Johannesburg and London. She is broadly interested in urban governance and comparative methods.