Land as a Commons in the Cooperative Tradition
"Land is part of the global commons like water, air, language, knowledge and culture. The loss of commons land continues to increase with the demise of county farms and the growing sales of public sector land to raise money to close the fiscal deficit. Today two thirds of the UK’s 60 million acres is owned by just 158,000 families or 0.36% of the population according to Kevin Cahill (2001) in Who Owns Britain.
With eye-watering housing costs and a growing ‘generation rent’ living in overcrowded conditions, it is about time that practical land reform was put on the public policy agenda in the UK. It is not well remembered that land reform was at the heart of the vision of early co-operative movement but has faded unfortunately from view since the 1920s.
The development in recent years of Community Land Trusts and community-supported agriculture is reviving on the margins a steadily growing awareness of the land question. It is hard to imagine today that a century ago, after decades of struggle, the ambitious vision of the Garden City movement was for the development of entire towns and cities built upon land owned mutually by the citizens. The value and economic rent of this land was designed under Garden City plans from 1903 to be captured as co-operative commonwealth for all residents.
Can we go back to the future? History indicates an affirmative answer. Here are some highlights of the historic connection between the fight to reclaim the commons and the practical vision of a Co-operative Commonwealth.
Land became a growing political issue in the 16th and 17th centuries in the face of the first major wave of enclosures. Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers were early prophets of democratic land ownership in the mid 17th century. Their efforts were defeated and the loss of the commons intensified in the late 18th century as thousands of parliamentary acts of enclosure gathered pace.
In 1775 Thomas Spence, the son of a shoemaker from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, proposed a practical solution in a pamphlet: ‘Property in Land, Every One’s Right’. Spence argued that local parishes should own all land democratically and that rents collected should be used first to provide support for those unable to work and second to be shared to meet the needs of children and local residents equally. Spence called his solution the Parish Land Trust and this reform became known in the nineteenth century as Spence’s Plan. Both advocacy and pioneering spread and inspired other land reform thinkers like Thomas Paine.
Interest in land reform grew and was at the heart of the principles and practices of the founders of the Co-operative movement. Indeed the mission of the first Co-op shops was to use surpluses to buy land to meet member needs affordably. Land reform experiments led by Robert Owen and his followers spread far and wide from the 1820s. The Chartist Land Company grew out of this co-operative activity and in middle of the nineteenth century raised share capital from trade unionists to build over 250 homes plus schools, community halls and half a dozen co-operative villages.
Thereafter local co-operative societies used their surpluses to acquire sites that were used to develop the first housing co-ops in the late nineteenth century.
American land reformer Henry George was active in the co-operative movement and he had a huge following in Great Britain and Ireland. His proposal for land taxation through a Single Tax was aimed at encouraging the steady and peaceful transfer of private land ownership for securing the substantial economic benefit and social security of the vast majority of households and businesses.
Along with Spence, the Co-ops, the early building societies, the Chartists and the followers of Henry George pioneered a growing movement of land reform practice and stewardship. All these precedents gave Ebenezer Howard the confidence to develop the Garden City model and with important support from those active in the co-operative movement to develop Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities.
The potential for positive land reform to underpin a ‘share the wealth’ national plan rubbed off on national government a century ago. Indeed just six years after the founding of Letchworth Garden City on ‘co-operatively owned land’, Lloyd George as Chancellor with the active backing of Winston Churchill as trade minister introduced the famous People’s Budget of 1909 that included a land value tax inspired by Henry George and set at 20% on any increases in value when land changed hands. This attempt by a Government to redistribute wealth to the people through land reform led to a twelve-month battle in Parliament. In April 1910 the land tax was dropped after the first House of Lords veto of a Government budget in two hundred years.
Land Value Taxation is now being talked about seriously once more by a number of politicians in diverse parties. There are today more than 50 Community Land Trusts operating in rural areas of England and Scotland. In Wales they are part of a wider strategy to develop a new co-operative housing sector with pioneering projects being supported by the Welsh Government in 8-10 local authority areas. In England and Wales urban Community Land Trusts are emerging in a growing number of cities and towns including East London, Bristol, Liverpool and Rhyl.
The history and forgotten practices of co-operative land reform needs to be recovered and should be at the heart of any Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade." (http://www.uk.coop/pressrelease/commons-and-co-operative-commonwealth)