Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence


Memorandum from Kevin Cahill

  Memorandum by Kevin Cahill FRSA, MBCS, BA, author of Who Owns Britain, the first book on landownership in the UK in 126 years. (Canongate 2001/2002) Kevin Cahill is the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce) spokesperson or "champion" on land issues and will be publishing a book called Who Owns the World in May next year. This book will be the first book ever written on landownership worldwide and will identify over 1,000 of the world largest landowners by name. The book will cover landownership and landownership systems in all 231 countries and territories on the planet. The author is working with the World Bank on its survey of landownership systems in 135 countries world wide, due for publication in July.

  Summaries of elements of Who Owns Britain were read into the Hansard record of the debate on the new Land Registry Bill in December 2001. Kevin Cahill has also contributed to Ms Barkers report. Kevin Cahill is a former research assistant in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.


  The issue of house building in the UK turns, not upon environmental issues, but mainly on the issue of the availability of land, which in turn is directly related to how land is used in the United Kingdom. How land is used is a direct function of how it is owned in the United Kingdom. But the debate so far has been conducted without a clear and simple guide to both land use and land ownership in the UK. This very short paper aims to provide the committee with the basic facts and figures, to enable the debate to actually arrive at the environmental issues, which is when the factual consequences of the proposed house building programme can be seen in relation to the use of the land surface of the UK as a whole.

  The Committee should note that those who own potential building land in the United Kingdom are at pains to encourage the idea that land is scarce in the country; that there is a shortage of potential building land. Such shibboleths as "crowded" island, are commonplace, when the real facts are radically at variance with such notions. To quote Professor Martin Wolf, the deputy editor and chief economic writer at the Financial Times. (May 14th 2004)

  "Asked the wrong question, the most intelligent analyst will fail to reach the right answer. An example is the review of housing supply by Kate Barker of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee. Her recent report makes an invaluable contribution to debate on the UK's biggest economic failure; the huge distortions in land use. But the question posed by the Treasury was too narrow. It is not how to increase housing supply, but how to use the country's scarce land efficiently.

  Start with planning. Even in the South East of England, just 7.8% of land is in urban use, while nearly 60% is protected from development. A 50% increase in the land covered by urban development would cut the non urban remainder by just 4%."


  Now let me put put Professor Wolf's percentages into the real world.

  Devon is a county of 1,658,278 acres. The population of Devon is 1,300,000 people, approximately. This means those of us who live in Devon have a notional 1.2 acres for our individual use. In practice, 1,265,853 acres of Devon are agricultural land, where, excluding villages, about 44,000 people live. (11,000 farms, approx) The agricultural population of Devon have a notional 28.7 acres per person for their individual use. About 6% of the land of Devon is rated as urban land, covered with bricks and mortar. This is about 99,500 acres, leaving 292,925 acres of waste, moorland and other unspecified land, in all, almost three times the urban plot.(Excluding agricultural land)

  The purpose of these figures is to show the size of the urban patch, 99,500 acres, and the size of the rest of Devon, 1,558,778 acres.

  The pattern in the rest of the UK is little different from this, excluding metropolitan areas.

  And what of the agricultural plot of 1,265,853 acres in Devon? This part of Devon receives about £126,000, 000 in subsidies of various sorts (calculated at £100 per acre, which is conservative) If the whole of the agricultural plot was economically efficient there would be no need for subsidies, logically. What the subsidy means is that a percentage of Devon's agriculture is not economic, and the same for agriculture in the rest of the country.

  The Committee in its briefing mention a forecast figure of 245,000 new houses needed in Britain each year. To illustrate the point I am making about land availability and land use, let us see how Devon would cope with that.

  At current building densities, which are around 10 to 12 dwellings per acre, Devon would lose just 24,000 acres, or 1.4% of its total acreage, were it to accommodate the entire British house building programme for one year. And I can assure you that a subsidy of £126 million means that a lot more than 24,000 agricultural acres are economically unproductive.


  To conduct a meaningful debate about house building, it is first necessary to have a clear and simple idea of how land is used and owned in the country as a whole. Here is that simple picture.

    —  The total land area of the United Kingdom is 60,318,577 acres.

    —  The total population of the United Kingdom is 60,000,000 (Est 2003).

    —  The notional availability of land is 1 acre per person.

  But in detail:

    —  Agricultural land occupies 41,915,863 acres of the UK. This is about 69% of the land of the country. There are 237,000 agricultural holdings on that plot.

    —  At four persons per dwelling, there are 948,000 people living on 41,915,863 acres. That is 44 acres per person.

    —  Of the 237,000 agricultural holdings, about one third, 79,000, are rented from the other 158,000.

    —  158,000 families own 41,000,000 acres, over two thirds of the country.

    —  The cost of maintaining those 158,000 families in business, and of maintaining the rural plot, is £4,000,000,000 to £6,000,000,000 a year in taxpayer subsidies.

    —  It follows that if subsidies are necessary a percentage of the agricultural plot is uneconomic. Perhaps those of a fiscal turn of mind might note the advantage of converting some revenue negative land, agricultural land, into revenue positive land, that of urban dwellings.

  A further breakdown, excluding agriculture.

    —  After agriculture is taken away there remain 18,402,271 acres of the United Kingdom.

    —  Of that acreage, about 3,619,114 acres are reckoned to be urban, built upon with bricks and mortar. (This is the higher of two estimates, one of 4% the other of 6%, of urban land in the UK as a whole)

    —  The actual acreage in use for living by individuals in the UK population is .06 of an acre.

    —  The urban plot is not subsidized and produces revenue of about £13,000,000,000 per year. (Council tax).

    —  This leaves about 14,783,157 acres of the UK as mountain, bog, moor, waste, roads etc.

  The question then is what are the land use consequences of placing housing on about 24,500 acres of the UK each year ?

  First of all there is a "loss" of land equal to 0.04% of the land of the UK. And that, might I humbly suggest, should be the starting point about a debate on the environmental consequences of the projected figure for house building.

  At which point it is worth noting that for a population of 4,000,000 the Irish Republic is building 70,000 dwellings this year. For a population of 60,000,000 we are currently building about 165,000 houses a year.

  The two questions that arise are these. Are the Irish overbuilding and are we under building ? The answer to both questions is probably, yes. (The acreage notionally available to each Irish person is 4.3 acres.)


  To accelerate the current house build rate of around 165,000 per annum, to 245,000 per annum, in the UK, would involve a change of use to land in the UK of 0.04% of the land surface. Over ten years, a change of use to just 0.4% of the land surface. It would increase the size of the urban plot from 3,619,114 acres to 3,864,114 acres, out of 60,318,577 acres.


  The environmental issues that arise are first of all whether 69% of the country, the agricultural plot, parts of which are hugely uneconomic, should be wholly protected from development, and at what is the cost of that protection? And the 2nd question is whether properly constructed housing, with all conservation, energy and environmental issues addressed , is not a better use of some of the agricultural land of the country anyhow. After all, the purpose of environmental rectitude is to provide a better and safer environment for the people of the country. And maybe squashing families into densities of 10 to 12 per acre, without gardens, when so much land is available, is neither environmentally sound, nor good conservation. Too much of the environmental debate centres around visual amenity in the country side, without notion of cost, when the heart of environmental concern should be about the immediate environment in which people live, their home.

May 2004

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 31 January 2005