Who really owns Britain?

When Who Owns Britain was originally published in 2001, the Government was forced to admit that the Land Registry did not possess information about the total acreage of land in England and Wales, nor records as to the ownership of at least 35% of the two countries.

Now, nearly 10 years on, we are told that more than 24.7 million acres-or just under 75%-of land is subject to a register of title with the Government agency. However, as compulsory registration was brought in on a regional basis -beginning with parts of London in 1890 and the rest of England and Wales by 1990-a piece of land that has not changed hands or been remortgaged since the date when it became compulsory to register in that particular area of the country may not have been registered at all. Therefore, although the Land Registry aims to reflect another 618,000 acres through voluntary registration in 2010/11, we may never know exactly who owns how much of the British countryside.

‘It’s important to point out that Land Registry deals solely with land, not ownership details. We register land, not “people”, and therefore do not quantify “how much” land is owned by any particular person or company,’ says a spokesperson.

What we do know, however, is that the aristocracy and the Royal Family still play an important role in the ownership of our country. More than a third of land is still in the hands of aristocrats and traditional landed gentry. Indeed, the 36,000 members of the CLA own about 50% of the rural land in England and Wales.

What is also clear is that, for all of us-not only the very rich-the pursuit of land is as important as it’s ever been. And, according to leading estate agents, an increasing number of overseas buyers feels just the same way about owning a slice of the British Isles.

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There are few more elegant or eloquent statements about the role of family-estate ownership in the modern age than that made by Lord Clinton of the Clinton Devon estates in Devon. It is ‘to secure the long-term prosperity of the estates and the people who live and work on them in ways which care for the countryside and assist the wider community’.Where the Clinton estates, winners this year of both a Queen’s Award for Enterprise and a Sunday Times award for Best Small Business to Work For, have led, others are following. Edwin Christmas, land agent for the Grosvenor Eaton estate, says that ‘we have a duty to the community of people who live and work on the estate’ and adds: ‘This requires a long-term commitment to our communities.’ At a time when an increasing volume of rural land is passing into corporate hands, this reminder of the way Britain was once run, and still is in some places, is significant. In perhaps the most extensive research for many years into how rural Britain is owned, and therefore managed,

Country Life has discovered a huge change in land-holding patterns, one that will shape the future of rural Britain for years to come, and is little understood. The key change is from family estates into corporate estates, often, as in the case of the National Trust, run from a centralised headquarters. That is coupled with the likelihood that the land in corporate ownership will never return to private ownership, notwithstanding the Coalition’s plans to privatise the Forestry Commission’s 2.5 million acres. Inevitably, and with the best will in the world, corporate ownership is management dominated, and, as such, deeply influenced by people with careers to mind, not permanent places in a local community to consider.

But, before embarking on the present situation, here is a little of the very-little-known history of landownership in rural Britain, and the changes that have occurred to that ownership. The starting point for this is 1872, when Parliament commissioned a second Domesday Book of the UK (see box). Unlike the original Domesday Book of 1086, which treated all land as owned by one person, the king, the second one, properly titled The Return of Owners of Land, listed, in four volumes, the owners of all land above one acre in size in the UK. What this showed on analysis was that the rural UK was almost entirely owned and managed by family estates, some of them very large. But what it also showed was an almost complete absence of State or corporate ownership. Seven of the 11 largest landowners in modern Britian did not exist 100 years ago, and all, such as the National Trust, are corporate estates.

The British Empire, the largest the world had ever known, used a mere 165,000 acres of the country to house and train its entire military force. Compare that with the current holdings of the Ministry of Defence, which are 592,800 acres in the UK and 250,000 leased acres in Canada.

Of the estates extant in 1872, and which formed almost the totality of the rural world, some were of great antiquity, especially in England. Estates such as those of the Grosvenor family in Cheshire, or the Clintons in Devon, were formed in the century immediately after the Norman invasion of 1066, and are the living roots of the country’s history. They were also the structure that nurtured the British nation, for good and ill.

But, above all, they were locally organised. The tenants knew who their landlord was. They met him in church, they saw him at the local fair, and, often, he was there when rents were paid. And not all were male. There were huge estates in female hands, such as Baroness Willoughby de’Eresby in Lincolnshire with 132,000 acres, and Mrs Preston in Devon with 11,000 acres. About 10% of rural Britain was female owned in 1872. And now? The exact number of acres in foreign ownership, or corporate ownership for that matter, and the pace at which it is increasing are hard to determine. This is because the Land Registry for England and Wales as well as that of Northern Ireland has no record of who owns about 50% of the rural land area. Defra knows because you get no subsidy if you can’t demonstrate some rights of ownership, but it’s not data that’s shared with other agencies. In Andy Wightman’s study of landownership in Scotland in 1996, there were 25 estates of more than 12,000 acres in foreign ownership. The largest five of these, with more than 300,000 acres held, were owned respectively by Canadian, Dutch policy in relation to its tenant farms. According to the board-which includes David Fursdon, whose family has farmed the same Devon estate for more than 700 years-The Crown Estate is targeting specific measures to sustain and enhance important habitats and encourage biodiversity. It is one of the largest rural landowners in Britain, with 265,000 of its acres in agricultural areas and more than 780 tenant farms. ‘The board tries to employ a holistic approach and offers awards for farming,’ according to Roger Bright, its chief executive.

The National Trust, with its 3.8 million members, is the largest membership organisation of its kind in Europe. With 630,000 acres, most of them in rural areas, it’s the second largest landowner in the country. Among its many satisfied tenants are mother and son Valerie and Alan Watkins, who run the Radnor Arms pub in Coleshill, as well as their own microbrewery, the Halfpenny Brewery, in nearby Lechlade. Mr Watkins describes the National Trust as landlords who go all the way with you. ‘The building, converted from a smithy in 1949, is very old, and when we set out to create the brewery and the pub, we found the National Trust totally supportive.’

The Duchy of Cornwall, set up in 1337, has about 133,602 acres, mostly in the West Country. The jewels in the crown are the Isles of Scilly, where the Duchy is closely engaged with the entire local community in both urban and rural planning. The Duchy Council has names that everyone in the rural community will recognise. Sir Nicholas Bacon is the Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and chair. Beside him sit David Fursdon, the Duke of Westminster and the Countess of Arran, a well-known Devon landowner.

To deal with rural matters, the Duchy has a specific Rural Committee, whose aim, according to the estate, ‘is to provide local contacts and local management that is always accessible to the tenants’.

The most widely known landed estate in Britain, although not the biggest, is the Grosvenor estate. With 133,100 acres in the UK and more in Canada, Australia and many other places, it’s easy to forget that the estate is probably one of the largest farmers in Cheshire, and has extensive holdings in Scotland. It is one of the few really big estates headed by a woman. Lesley Knox becomes chair of the corporation in January 2011, having joined the board in September. She’s well known in the City, and is a director of both Hays Plc and Alliance.

There has been an extraordinary revival in the importance of the rural family estate in the UK. With that revival has come an adoption, by some of the largest corporate estates, of the core values of the family estate; proximity to their tenants, care for both the rural community and the landscape, and business practices that are sustainable, not predatory.

In search of the most valuable acre

In the countryside

It might be hard to believe, but Knight Frank’s head of rural property research, Andrew Shirley, says that even the price of central London’s best residential property can’t keep pace with farmland, which is able to double in price.

‘At the beginning of the past decade, an acre of decent, but not outstanding farmland, was worth about £2,500 per acre. Since then, prices have grown steeply and, according to our farmland index, now sits at £5,769 an acre-£7,000 per acre is not uncommon.’ Savills’ market research paints a similar rosy picture, with prices of £9,000 an acre being achieved from prime arable land in the South-West this year and £9,600 per acre for prime dairy land in the North-West. And, although fewer than 100,000 acres of farmland a year are now traded in England, leading estate agents are starting to notice subtle changes in the sort of people buying prime agricultural or sporting property.

‘Farmers are still the primary occupiers of farmland,’ says Crispin Holborow, head of Savills’ country department. ‘However, farms in parts of the UK, such as the West Country, are now often bought by what we term the amenity or hobby farmer, who is looking to live in a well-positioned house with up to a few hundred acres.

‘In Scotland, estates were historically bought for the sporting opportunities provided by hill, loch and river. Today, such buyers can be competing against a new wave of environmental buyers, for whom it’s all about maximising the ecological value and re-establishing traditional habitats.

‘For buyers of English estates today, it’s about owning the trophy asset, which must work as a home, but also at least hold its value. In many cases where a traditional landed family does choose to sell, it’s not due to a lack of funds, but more to do with primogeniture. Gone are the Downton Abbey days where the property must be passed onto a male heir or even just the eldest child. Dividing assets equally between children is much higher on the agenda, which often leads to a sale. More estates are now owned by a younger generation, which has often had successful careers in the City; they bring with them a wealth of commercial knowledge that’s used to market the estate and, in many cases, develop an estate brand. ‘UK buyers remain strongest in this market, but they can be in competition with Western and Eastern Europeans, as well as Asians, who are just beginning to show some interest.’

The credentials of grouse-moor owners haven’t changed much in recent years, according to Frank Speir, director of Prime Purchase, although leasing sporting rights is increasingly popular. ‘There have been a few high-profile sales to overseas buyers in the past decade, but they’re the exception and very few moors are marketed,’ says Mr Speir. ‘Most owners prefer to retain the ownership, but will consider letting a moor on a long lease, say, for one generation, in order to generate some income. It’s now fair to say leasing moors is more common than selling in the current market. Long leases appeal to foreigners who are prepared to spend money on grouse shooting, but don’t want the responsibility of owning an asset. Likewise, leases are often popular with those who have made money in the City and regard grouse-shooting as the ultimate sporting challenge.’

In the City

‘Addresses such as Lennox Gardens and Lennox Square in London’s Belgravia fetch consistently high prices of £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000 per square foot,’ says Liam Bailey, head of research at Knight Frank. ‘Areas such as Belgravia (right) and Knightsbridge have built up a high quality reputation over time, because of the architecture, the heritage and the fact that a lot of the property in such places has been very well maintained by great estates such as the Cadogan and the Grosvenor.’ Earlier this year, an apartment at the Candy brothers’ exclusive One Hyde Park development sold for a whopping £140 million. The sale is believed to have set a world record this year of more than £6,000 per square foot.

Traditional properties in northwest London locations, such as St John’s Wood, are also achieving high prices. ‘Last month, an unmodernised 10,000sq ft post-Second World War mansion on one acre in Compton Avenue sold for in excess of its £15 million guide to an Eastern European,’ says Jonathan Hewlett, head of London sales for Savills, adding: ‘This year, in prime central London, we have sold nine flats between £10 million and £16 million, 60% of which were sold to international buyers.’