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Who owns Britain? How the rich kept hold of land

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Issue 2517
The late 6th Duke of Westminster who owned half of London
The late 6th Duke of Westminster who owned half of London (Pic: Wikimedia Commons/Philip Allfrey)

When choosing where to bury Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, his family was spoilt for choice.

The 6th Duke of Westminster, who died last Wednesday, owned a land portfolio worth £9 billion.

In London alone the Grosvenor Estate, dating back to 1677, includes the plush Belgravia and Mayfair districts.

Grosvenor is one of six “great estates” that own large swathes of the capital. England’s old aristocratic fiefdoms have rebranded themselves as large capitalist enterprises, each with their own corporate logos.

But London is just a small snapshot of who owns Britain. A third of land in England and Wales is still owned by the aristocracy, according to Country Life magazine’s most recent Who Owns Britain survey.

Some 36,000 people, 0.6 percent of the population, own more than half of rural land in England and Wales.

The structure of land and property ownership is shifting from family-owned estates to corporations.

After the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act passed in 2002, residential leaseholders could buy their properties more easily. This has seen some estates shrink—slightly.

But successive governments have made sure that top landowners maintained their grip.

And landowners have adapted to the changing needs of British capitalism.

Their estates brought in outside investors and developers. They switched to renting property on short-term contracts—and made a killing.

In London the Crown Estate has shrunk significantly, but the queen’s property portfolio remains one of the largest. The Crown Estate boasts, “We are the UK’s largest coastal landowners, managing and investing in a hugely diverse range of assets.

“These include around half the UK’s shoreline.”

It’s “Rural and Coastal portfolio” was worth £1,621 million in 2015/16 and brought in a revenue of £49.5 million.

And that isn’t all of the Royal family’s land—only what they don’t own “privately”.


Only narrowly behind the Crown Estate is Richard Scott, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and 12th Duke of Queensbury. With four major estates he is Europe’s biggest private landowner and lives in the Drumlanrig family castle in Scotland.

Scotland has the most unequal land ownership in Western Europe, with just 432 powerful landlords owning 50 percent of the land.

A report by Scottish land reform campaigners in 2013 singled out Buccleuch for legally minimising his tax bill and claiming subsidies.

It said some landowners’ identity was hidden in companies, foundations and offshore tax havens.

The Buccleuch Estate denied its ownership was deliberately “complicated” to avoid tax.

Apart from the National Trust and Forestry Commission, these aristocrats have managed to cling on as Britain’s biggest landowners for centuries.

Stealing our rights by stealth

Protest-free zone - Londons South Bank

Protest-free zone – London’s South Bank (Pic: Geograph/Alan Hunt)

Private companies aren’t just after our public services—they are rapidly buying up public spaces in cities too.

First appearing in the 1980s, privately-owned public space (Pops) have been steadily growing.

While Pops are open to the public, they have draconian implications for ordinary people’s rights.

London City Hall is part of the More London estate, which stretches down London’s South Bank.

The project was sold to Kuwaiti property corporation St Martins for £1.7 billion in 2013, one of the biggest private property deals in British history.

You can still stroll down the South Bank, but you have no legal right to protest outside the Mayor and Greater London Authority’s gaff.

The same is true in Canary Wharf where many of the world’s top banks are based.

Other Pops include Birmingham’s canalside development, Brindleyplace.

And in the Pops revolution, old and new money can mingle.

Princeshay, a “shopping village” with its own complex of streets in Exeter, is owned and run by Land Securities—along with the Crown Estate.

Offshore firms’ bonanza

It’s not just the aristocracy that owns Britain—offshore companies have carried out a massive land grab.

In the ten years from 2005 offshore firms acquired £170 billion in properties, according to Private Eye magazine.

Offshore firms registered in Jersey bought up 20,590 properties and those registered in Guernsey some 11,536. Companies operating out of the now notorious Panama grabbed 1,245 properties.

But the most popular location for land-grabbing companies, with 22,155 properties bought, was tax haven capital the British Virgin Islands.

Firms have cashed in on major “redevelopment” and “regeneration” projects for the world’s rich.

The Battersea Project Land Company Limited, registered in Jersey, purchased the old power station site for £309,441,000 in 2012.

The whole Nine Elms area is being redeveloped to provide luxury flats and corporate spaces for oligarchs and corporations. Another company that owns land in the area is Lycus Ltd—also registered in Jersey.

Duke’s death saves grouse

Protesters on the moor near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, on the Glorious 12th last week. They say aristocrats subsidised grouse estates increase the risk of floods

Protesters on the moor near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, on the “Glorious 12th” last week. They say aristocrats’ subsidised grouse estates increase the risk of floods (Pic: Neil Terry)

Britain’s 121-day grouse shooting season began on Friday of last week, known as the Glorious 12th.

A highlight in many aristocrat’s year, many would gather at the Duke of Westminster’s 18,000-acre Abbey Estate in Lancashire.

Prince William was rumoured to be due to attend.

Unfortunately he’ll miss out this year, as the Duke’s death meant it was cancelled.

Cash blessing for the church

Blessed are the landowners in Britain—especially the Church of England.

This profitable corporation holds £6.7 billion in assets—and its land portfolio is worth some £2 billion.

Its estate includes properties across Britain. It owns more than 100,000 acres of land in England and Wales.

One ministry makes a killing

The Ministry of Defence is the second biggest landowner in Britain.

It owns more than 500,000 acres—and has “right of access” to 500,000 more.

Its property portfolio is valued at around £20 billion and costs £3.3 billion to maintain.


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