Cry Freehold – the Transcript

cry_freehold17:00 Sunday 8th December 2013
BBC Radio 4

[A]NNOUNCER: We know that we face a widespread housing crisis, but is land the real issue? In Cry Freehold, Chris Bowlby investigates.
(MUSIC) (LYRIC) Went to the housing committee/Stood for two hours in a line/They showed me ..
CHRIS BOWLBY: I’m sitting at my kitchen table, in the house I co-own with my wife in East Oxford. It’s exactly where, a little while ago, this story began with a rather boring letter about renewing our buildings insurance. I’ve got the letter here, and what stood out for me is the big discrepancy between what the insurer says the house would cost to rebuild, and what estate agents tell me the house is worth. The difference of course is down to the value of the land my house sits on. And that got me thinking. We talk endlessly about housing, whether there’s a bubble brewing in the south east, whether the Government’s initiatives will inflate the market, the north/south house price divide. But we seem to talk rather less about land.
(DOOR OPENING)
CHRIS BOWLBY: In this programme I want to show that just as underneath our houses there’s land, underneath the housing issue there is a land issue. And we need to understand both. And I’m going to attempt to show that by exploring my own street, neighbourhood and city, Oxford. Because as we’ll see, Oxford’s housing problem is typical of a growing problem affecting more and more places, especially in the south east, south west and eastern England. It’s a problem which on the one hand makes housing increasingly unaffordable, especially for younger people, and on the other hand puts green spaces in and around cities under intense pressure. Land and land ownership, once you start thinking about it, looks like one of the great dividing lines in our society, and always has been.
(OB)
CHRIS BOWLBY: Well it’s a drizzly old autumn day, just off the Cowley Road in East Oxford, just a few minutes away from where I live, on a street called Alma Place. But this street in the 19th century has a really interesting history, in terms of the way the land was used. Malcolm Graham a local historian is with me. So at the moment here we are, pavement, just an ordinary looking suburban street, many people might say. But what would this have looked like Malcolm in the mid-19th century, before it was developed?
MALCOLM GRAHAM: Well Alma Place would have just been a field off the Cowley Road. The rest of the area we now know as East Oxford was just a huge open field. And this is where the National Freehold Land Society begin their programme of development in 1852.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So it becomes available, and then what happens? A group of people who wouldn’t normally be landowners bid for it?
MALCOLM GRAHAM: Yes that’s right. The National Freehold Land Society was set up partly to increase the number of people who were able to vote, through the 40 shilling freehold.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So in those days, the Reform Act, you needed to have property if you were a man to have the vote.
MALCOLM GRAHAM: Yes, so that this was part of the ambition, but part of it was also creating property ownership for people, and encouraging thrift amongst the working population was the great thing. Thrift and temperance of course.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So they buy up a chunk of land, and what, parcel it up and give it to people to build on?
MALCOLM GRAHAM: Yes. Their members than can either pay for a share, or there were lotteries of shares. And then they had to pay the money back for the share over the next few years.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So it means land ownership and property development for a bit of society ..
MALCOLM GRAHAM: Yes.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Relatively well-to-do. We’re not talking about poorer people here, but still people who would never have thought of land holding before.
MALCOLM GRAHAM: I think so. There were college servants. There were artisans. There were clerks. There were people who were regularly paid, who didn’t have a fortune, but they look to have a property in the suburbs. So there is a demand, even in a place which wasn’t huge. Oxford had about 25/30,000 then. But they’d all been pent-up in really the medieval area of Oxford. And now they had a chance to get out and breath the fresh air out here.
(SOUND CAR ENGINE RUNNING)
CHRIS BOWLBY: That’s now history. It’s hard to imagine anything like what Malcolm was telling me about happening in today’s streets, festooned with estate agent signs. But there is in fact a modern group, trying to work collectively, to buy land and build on it, based just across the road from me. They’re members of a co-housing project, the kind of self-help housing project you can find in many parts of Britain. But the key problem’s not, as you might imagine, how to design and build houses. It’s finding land. Here they come.
BOTH: Hello. Hi. Hello.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So this is Fran Ryan and Sarah Westcott from a group called Oxford Co-Housing.
FRAN RYAN: That’s right. I think what’s really different now is that there’s so little land. Oxford is one of the most expensive parts of the UK. In Oxford we need nine times more than the average wage to buy a house. And actually in some parts of Oxford it’s worse. And that’s not because houses are more expensive. It’s because the land the houses are on is so dramatically more, something like one and a half to million quid an acre, which is just unbelievable. So even though we’re organised, and we’ve got money between us, it’s pretty hard to actually find a piece of land.
CHRIS BOWLBY: At what stage in this process did you realise that land was the key issue?
SARAH WESTCOTT: It’s a good question. I think at the beginning we were very keen on the group development, to get a big enough membership, to get the group together, to work out how we were going to make decisions. We got training in consensus decision making and so on. So it’s in the last maybe eighteen months we’ve said land has to be the priority. We have to have a site. Many more people will join when it’s real, and it’s only going to be real when we’ve got the land.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Is it harder than you expected?
FRAN RYAN: Much harder. And actually some times we feel really demoralised. We’re in the office today, and we’re just trying to egg each other along. But I actually do think that we’ve got to try and crack this. We need to have a critical mass of these sorts of projects. And if they can be affordable, so much the better.
SARAH WESTCOTT: It’s wet.
FRAN RYAN: We need to go and get a cup of coffee and cheer up.
SARAH WESTCOTT: That’s right. Yes.
FRAN RYAN: Onwards and upwards.
SARAH WESTCOTT: Onwards and upwards. Yes.
FRAN RYAN: And perhaps if someone’s listening to this programme who’s got a bit of land that you could build thirty houses on they’ll get in touch. That would be great.
SARAH WESTCOTT: Oxford Co-Housing.
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ANDREW WHITTAKER: Well land only ever comes through the planning system. In order to develop a site you have to get planning permission. And that’s where the skill lies on being a developer, is knowing how to find your way through that very complex process. I’m Andrew Whittaker. I’m the Planning Director at the Home Builders Federation, the trade federation for fundamentally private sector house builders. There is definitely a shortage of land, but it’s more a shortage of what we call outlets. It’s all very well allocating a very large strategic site for development for say 1,000 houses, 2,000 houses. But you can’t build those overnight. They will only be developed at a market rate, which is about one house per week for every single outlet. So you can’t just increase the production on very large sites. You need more sites. The official estimates are only 9-10% of the land in England is developed. So if you were to build 240,000 houses a year for the next 20 years, you would only be using another 2% of the land mass.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: Do you want that extra land in places people want to live? Chances are it might be in or near the Green Belt, designed to protect places from urban sprawl. In Oxford, as in many other places, the Green Belt is celebrated by some as what’s prevented the city’s ruination since the 1950s. But others are asking does the Green Belt need a rethink? Does it distort the value of land and what’s done with it? I’m next to an overgrown field on the outskirts of Oxford. As you will hear, it’s right by a dual-carriageway, not far from a big supermarket and housing estate. Here on the fence around the land is a rain-sodden notice about a planning application for up to 400 residential units, 158 car parking spaces. I’m going to meet Chris Wilmshurst, a property surveyor and consultant for the company Kemp and Kemp. He’s been involved with the landowner in making this planning application.
So have we got a good example here of how the Green Belt isn’t quite the huge change in nature of land we might think?
CHRIS WILMSHURST: We have actually, because the parcel that we’re sat on is in Oxford City, and is not in the Green Belt, and is allocated for development, whereas on the other side of the road from us the same client who owns the land that we’re now stood on owns the parcel of land on the other side of the road, but that is in the Green Belt. And it’s in South Oxfordshire, and the presumption is against development.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So it’s a completely different designation; it’s a different local authority who might have a very different idea about development or not; and in terms of its potential value, although it may look broadly similar land, it’s a huge difference.
CHRIS WILMSHURST: Yes if you look at the character of the land, there’s not much to choose between them. Both just overgrown fields. But yes, the potential value of the bit we’re stood on with planning permission is many millions of pounds, whereas on the other side of the road, maybe £10,000 an acre, something on that sort of scale. And with very little or even no prospect of development, it will remain thus for some while.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Yes, you wouldn’t notice to look at it, would you. There’s a similar sort of fence around it, similar sort of overgrown.
CHRIS WILMSHURST: Well until the road cut it in half, it was the same field.
CHRIS BOWLBY: How do you go about establishing the value of a piece of land? Because a lot of people might assume that it’s either agricultural land, be worth a certain lower level, or it’s designated as development land and then suddenly it’s worth a huge multiple more. Is it as simple as that?
CHRIS WILMSHURST: No. The value’s derived from the planning permission, not from the current use of the land. When we value land, the standard approach is to undertake what’s known as a residual valuation method, where basically you work out what the completed development would be worth. So if you’ve got 100 houses, and you know that you could sell them for £250,000 each. then you know that you’ve got a completed development worth £25 million. And you work back from there. And you work out all your costs, obviously your build, your roads, your architects, the money you spent on sorting planning permission out. You’ve then got the developer’s profit margin in there, because he’s not going to do it unless he makes a profit. And then once you’ve done all of that, what’s left is usually what the landowner gets.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Has this overall scarcity of land affected the way we build housing? Are we ahving to make more of less land?
CHRIS WILMSHURST: We are and we do. I would certainly say if we compared development today with that of the ’60s and ’70s, I would say it’s much more dense than it used to be. And I think we have a moral obligation to make the best use of land in that way. There’s always the counter-argument that we’re all squeezed in like battery hens, but the truth of the matter is what’s more important, a roof over your head or no roof over your head.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: Just who makes the plans that at the stroke of a pen can transform the value of land? Well that’s much debated at present, as the Government tries to establish a new national planning framework. It’s promising less complexity, more geared to economic growth and local power, allowing developers to use the courts to push for the release of development land, if local authorities aren’t doing it. Others worry about a building free-for-all where all old rules are abandoned. Oxford City Council is, like many local authorities, a substantial landowner itself. It’s trying to balance dealing with an affordable housing crisis with making money from its land, and dealing with Green Belt angst. I’ve come now to the grand Victorian town hall to see the Council’s Deputy Leader, Ed Turner.
ED TURNER: So we’ll come in here. It’s a very echoey room, high Victorian ceilings. We’ll see a map on the wall there.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So here are the boundaries of the city. And is that the border between the city and the Green Belt more or less we can see on the edge?
ED TURNER: Well that’s absolutely right. That’s Oxford surrounded on all sides by Green Belt land, which of course prevents development. And a particularly controversial area has been this area to the south of Grenoble Road. Now you might expect the Green Belt to be empty. There in fact you can see a sewage farm. Amongst other things, Oxford would like to redevelop that land and would like to grow the city out and build several thousand houses there. But we’re told we can’t, because the conservation lobby says that this land is a particular value. Of course what they don’t tell you is that some of it is actually taken up with a sewage farm.
CHRIS BOWLBY: But wouldn’t a lot of people say, what makes Oxford Oxford in many ways is the extraordinary combination of green space and urban architecture, a lot of it very historic? And if you just say OK, Green Belt’s now up for grabs, then it will just change the whole nature of the place.
ED TURNER: I would disagree with that, because of course we’re still going to protect many important sites within the city, which can’t be developed. And those are some of the things which keep the city most special. So if you look around central Oxford for example, you’ll see all of the public and common land, Christ Church Meadows and so on. They wanted to put a road through that in the 1960s. Thank goodness that didn’t happen. Port Meadow up there, again a very special area. The risk in fact is much more that if you don’t see Oxford grow, first of all you’ll see it become an enclave for the very rich, which I think would take a lot away from the city which it currently has. But secondly you will see existing sites like for example the Greyhound Stadium just here, being taken up simply for residential development.
CHRIS BOWLBY: I just sense in all this a big division between those who see land as something you can use to defend yourself against things you don’t want to develop, and those often not in control of land who say this whole thing is excluding us.
ED TURNER: That’s a very fair and appropriate way of looking at it. And in Oxford, as I say, we see that brought to a head, time time and time again. Every time I talk to someone who’s unhappy in their overcrowded house, who’s saying to me Ed, how can I get a council house, that thought does cross my mind, that we’re seeing developments stymied by people who are extremely well-housed, extremely well-off, and who are frankly condemning others to a life of misery.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: Ed Turner mentioned Port Meadow as a place that needs protection, and I’ve come to that ancient area of open land to the west of the city, near the railway station, with views across to the famous dreaming spires of Oxford city centre. But it’s a place which at the moment highlights the dilemmas of an idea of building up instead of out, putting more housing on each bit of land. In front of me is brand new student housing blocks, built by Oxford University, several stories high, which have prompted sharp protest from some locals. The Meadow has been desecrated they say by these ugly tower blocks. So against the housing demands and money to be made from development, are questions like what price do you put on a view.
(SOUND CLANKING CHAINS)
MIKE KENT: The clank of the gate. My grandson calls this the clinky clanky gate. This is the Bartlemas allotment site, which is situated just off the Cowley Road in East Oxford. I’m Mike Kent, and I’ve been looking after it for about forty years now.
CHRIS BOWLBY: It’s a bit windy outside for recording, so we’ve come into a poly-tunnel. Lovely smell of tomatoes growing here. So who owns this land?
MIKE KENT: The land is owned by Oriel College. Essentially Oriel leased this land to the City Council, who then lease it to us. We are tenants.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Just been up at Port Meadow, where there’s a big row going on because a lot of people feel that a really ancient wonderful view has been lost by housing development for students. Do you think there are similar issues around allotments about how much can we put a price on something like a view, or on green land, and set that against the value of land for development and so on?
MIKE KENT: That’s an interesting question. It’s wonderful having lovely views and lovely spaces and stuff like that, but fundamentally we’ve got people who need to live and work in the city, to keep the city viable. And without some decent housing, without the opportunity to do that, the view loses its value really. But these rows will go on, because people are hugely territorial, and even within our allotments here, occasionally little territorial disputes arise over the two foot path. It’s part of human nature to want not to change a view that you have, or a place that you have. I think that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to look at some sort of green development on some of these sites, where the allotments were incorporated within a green development.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So providing housing. Because some local communities think actually, we’re so short of housing that we actually do need to build on some of this land.
MIKE KENT: I would have thought they would. If you look at a piece of land and it’s not exactly tended and cultivated as you might like it to be, it’s inevitable that people look and say why can’t we use a bit of this land for housing. There’d be a lot of resistance. There’d be huge resistance. But we’ve only got 45 people that use this bit of land regularly. That’s a fairly exclusive bit of land for a small number of people really. And it would be nice to think that the allotments could become more a part of the community.
CHRIS BOWLBY: What would you say this bit of land means to you?
MIKE KENT: (LAUGHS) Well I can tell you what it means to my missus. She describes it as the Other Woman. In fact she calls it Lottie. But it’s my escape. It’s my bit of world.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: There’s a constant theme talking to people here which you find in many other urban places too. Passionate attachment to land, but uneasy awareness that communities need homes as well as green space. Key figures are the big landowners, whether individuals, institutions or developers. Andrew Whittaker, Planning Director for the Home Builders federation.
ANDREW WHITTAKER: There are some long term land owners who do not need to release their land now, under the current planning environment, or under the current price pressures that they’re under. They will just carry on sitting on their land, because they’re long term land owners. And trying to convince existing land owners that they need to bring forward their land for development has always been a problem.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: The Oxford colleges who own those allotments own a lot of Oxford. How do they want to use their land? To enable more people to come and study, or join university spin-off businesses, a big trend area as people wanting to live near their work and commute less? Or as an investment to hold on to, hoping its value will increase? Frances Cairncross was previously a journalist with the Economist newspaper. She’s been Head of Exeter College in Oxford since 2004.
FRANCES CAIRNCROSS: The room in which we are sitting is on the site to which this college moved in 1315, the year after we were founded. We’ve been here on this site ever since. It hasn’t been available on the open market in all that time. So Oxford has a lot of areas which have been built up for a very long time. It also has a city council, a planning committee, which is perforce very conscious of the need not to disrupt this beautiful city. And it is an amazingly beautiful city. And so any new building gets scrutinised very carefully. And finding undeveloped and available plots of land in the centre of Oxford is pretty much impossible. Some of the wealthier colleges have tracts of land which they acquired in the Middle Ages, so there is great continuity there.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Can you look on that land as any kind of business asset, or are people horrified? Do people think no, there’s something very traditional about land ownership and we’re obliged to continue it, whatever the economic arguments might be at the moment?
FRANCES CAIRNCROSS: I think increasingly colleges think of their land as a commercial proposition, where they own holdings of land outside the city. But they may take a much longer term view of the land than a commercial landlord would take. They might have a farm in an area where you could imagine it in thirty years time there would be a sharp rise in the demand for housing in that area, because you can see the local city or town creeping out towards it. And in that situation you wouldn’t want to let go of it.
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TOWN CRIER: Oh Yeah. Oh Yeah. Oh Yeah. Welcome to the City of Oxford
CHRIS BOWLBY: The Oxford Town Crier alerts tourists to all the symbols of those traditional land holdings.
TOWN CRIER: .. the Ashmoleum Museum. Christ Church. Alice’s Shop ..
CHRIS BOWLBY: They’re the very visible signs. But what actually sustains those institutions and the entire city today, a mass of workers cleaning, cooking, stacking shelves, are much less visible, and much more vulnerable to the lack of land and affordable housing here. One man I know who works in the market for example is a migrant, who’s struggling to pay £100 a week for one small room. So-called key workers, such as nurses, are struggling here as they are in many other parts of England.
KATHLEEN KELLY: I’m Kathleen Kelly, and I’m from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One of the main problems with the UK system is really the inherent instability of the market, which leads us into a cycle of fluxuating house prices. That instability can mean that people try to overstretch themselves and overextend themselves, and get onto the property ladder sooner than they perhaps should, because the ear is that they’ll be priced out. Even to keep affordability at the same levels we’d need to substantially increase supply. So if we look at the pre-recession building rates, we still see house prices be completely out of kilter with wages. So if you look at the bottom quarter of prices, we’d still see house prices to incomes being eleven times the bottom quarter of incomes and the bottom quarter of house prices by the time we get to 2026.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: In the early post-war decades, when Britain built lots of houses, many of the country’s less well-off workers were moved to estates on the outskirts of towns and cities, like the Barton Estate here. I’m heading there now. Oxford is much more of a place of contrasts than outsiders realise. More like Britain as a whole. If you want one really shocking stat. it’s a difference in life-expectancy of around ten years between the wealthiest and poorest parts of this relatively small city, and between those doing well out of land and property, and those feeling left behind. Just next to Barton is one of the very few larger Oxford housing developments approved in recent years. It’s a partnership between the developer, Grosvenor Estates, and Oxford City Council. The development’s ended up with more private than affordable housing.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: So we come into the community centre here in Barton, and they’ve got a local paper here, which has details of the new plans, a plan to enlarge Barton. Talking about up to 885 residential units, 40% of it affordable housing. But there seems to be quite a lot of concern expressed in this article. Will it be two communities or one? Will the new building that’s going on the new land to the west of where we are now actually integrate with the existing community here? And up on a notice board across here in the community centre is an interesting looking project called Green Mapping of Barton, which is all about giving the local community information about its own green spaces, and what could be done with them. People who want to know more should get in contact .. there’s a contact down here for rachel, who’s clearly running it all.
RACHAEL PEACE: I’m Rachael Peace and I am Project Co-ordinator for Low Carbon Barton.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So we’re (at a) quite interesting meeting point here, are we? Different sorts of land. Agricultural fields just over there, there’s a sports field just here, and there’s a bit there were houses are already being built. And presumably near here where they’d like to build more.
RACHAEL PEACE: Yes. We’re right on the border between City Council land and County Council land. It’s bordered by the brook.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So do you think that going through the last few years, the whole process of a new development being proposed and talked about, has made people more aware of whose land is it, what might be done with it, that kind of thing?
RACHAEL PEACE: Yes I think so, gradually it’s occurring to people that how they currently use land, green spaces, streets, whatever kind of space, will change in the future, because the land they live on is so valuable to others, and can be taken away without a great deal of resident involvement.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So what you’re trying to do is use bits of green space for a community garden, set that against the potential value of a piece of land for housing, there’s almost no comparison, is there?
RACHAEL PEACE: No there isn’t really. It depends how you judge value. And I would like what green spaces we do have in Barton to be really used, and demonstrably valued by the community. Because I don’t want what happened with the Nature Park to happen again. That developers could say the community isn’t using it enough, so we think we can use it for something else.
CHRIS BOWLBY: That was a piece of land which you thought was there for the community, there was a petition got up about it, but in the end it’s been incorporated into the development.
RACHAEL PEACE: Yes. It has.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Do you feel the conflict yourself? Presumably you would like to have your own bit of Oxford, your own place to live with your own bit of garden. But at the moment that’s what, not very likely for you?
RACHAEL PEACE: It’s not at all likely. I share a one-bed flat with my mother. I’m not eligible for council housing. And I can’t afford to buy or rent privately. So I am stuck in over crowded accommodation.
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(BINGO CALLER)
SANDRA PALMER: I am Sandra Palmer. I’m a local resident and been involved in the Barton Community Association for three years or so now. Yes, I am Rachael Peace’s mother. (THEY LAUGH)
CHRIS BOWLBY: Do you think local people identify with the land that they’re living on very strongly?
SANDRA PALMER: I believe that we’re a rural community that hasn’t had a chance to behave like one. And there’s no reason why we can’t do something more like that in the future. There are jobs that could come from market gardens, farming. People have been put on the edge of a city which has been rural, but not given rural work, not been called a village, all sorts of things. We’re urban as far as Oxford city is concerned.
CHRIS BOWLBY: And was there a discussion about how the development might go, how the land might be used, what would be left, what would be taken away?
SANDRA PALMER: I don’t think people in Barton have a feeling that they have control over anything much. So they just heard housing was going to be built, and they felt good We need more housing because people actually on this .. on Barton itself, are doubling up, couch-surfing, overcrowded conditions. And they know at first hand that there’s a housing need.
CHRIS BOWLBY: So you’ve noticed that, have you? That the housing situation has meant that people are just having to crowd in a lot more to the same bit of land, the same housing ..
SANDRA PALMER: Yes.
CHRIS BOWLBY .. than they would have done twenty, thirty years ago?
SANDRA PALMER: Twenty, thirty years ago yes. Sixty, seventy years ago no. It improved, didn’t it? There was a huge housing build post-war, because whichever government was in recognised the need. So there was a lot of local authority building. But that’s gone, because there was right-to-buy, all the local authority housing disappeared, all the departments that built local authority housing disappeared. They haven’t got those skills there anymore. But there’s no reason why they can’t have them back, I don’t think. (LAUGHS)
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CHRIS BOWLBY: Just going to make some tea. So all kinds of people, once you ask around, see land as crucial to the housing challenge so many parts of the country face. This has very deep roots. So could or should things change radically? Back home now, I want to listen to some of my recordings, to recall some of the solutions I’ve come across. While researching the programme, one of the experts I spoke to was Professor John Muellbauer of Nuffield College Oxford. I remember he wanted a much more comprehensive change to how we deal with land.

PROF MUELLBAUER: I think we could learn from our successful ex-colonies, in particular Hong Kong and Singapore. In Hong Kong and Singapore the government and government agencies can buy up land on the market, in auctions and other market events. And they can buy it at existing land use designation, and then the government agencies can change that land use designation for example from building or industrial development, housebuilding or industrial development. And the appreciation in the land which then occurs is then used to finance the infrastructure, finance the schools, the hospitals, the roads, the sewers and so on that are needed in order to service these new buildings.
CHRIS BOWLBY: You talked to government departments. You’ve been a government adviser. What do politicians make of this kind of more radical proposal?
PROF MUELLBAUER: Some politicians regard this as communism. I can think of one whose name I won’t mention who falls into that category. Other politicians think well, maybe one could think about this. We’ve become a nation of land speculators in many ways. Those who own land, who own expensive houses in the south east, are in the situation of being kings in their castles, with a moat around their castles, and the drawbridge half up. And not willing to allow access to the general population, and particularly the younger members of the general population, to the riches that lie inside that castle.

CHRIS BOWLBY: If politicians prefer castles to what they see as communism, maybe taxation is the answer. Margaret Godden is a former Liberal Democrat councillor, who lives in East Oxford.
MARGARET GODDEN: It sometimes seems that the land is so big we don’t notice it, you don’t notice where you’re standing. And once you become aware of it, you do see it everywhere.
CHRIS BOWLBY: She’s been in love for decades with something called land value taxation. It aims to shift taxation away from income and spending, and onto land ownership, partly to ensure that people use their land well. You pay the tax, whether or not you’re making money from your land.
MARGARET GODDEN: Where does the land get its value? Some of it gets its value because it came with the planet, the gold and the oil reserves and all that under the earth. Other than that, and this is by far the highest value of land these days, it is what the community has done for you. That’s why the house in the smart area costs so much more than the house in the un-smart area. That’s why it’s good to have your shop in a street that’s got good public services, where the local rowdies are kept under control, where people pick up the litter and so on.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Or if a road’s been built, or a railway station opened, that transforms things.
MARGARET GODDEN: Absolutely. Yes. So, if it’s the community that’s created the value, the community should have the benefit of it.
CHRIS BOWLBY: If you had a land tax, how do you think it would affect people’s behaviour?
MARGARET GODDEN: Well they might sell it. They might just walk away from it of course. One of the stains on our present system is that a site can be left as unused underdeveloped. And of course there’s the great scandal of the building companies who we believe are holding vast stocks of land, which they will not release until the price of houses is even higher than it is now. They couldn’t do that. They couldn’t afford to.
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CHRIS BOWLBY: These ideas are being talked about more, but remain on the political fringes. Most mainstream politics is extremely wary of how such a tax would work, or anything that might be seen as challenging ideas of private property.
FRANCES CAIRNCROSS: We’ve lived through a long period when there’s been hostility to aristocratic ownership of large holdings of land. But it may be that in many circumstances, actually having individuals owning large tracts of land that they pass on from generation to generation isn’t a bad thing.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Frances Cairncross, Head of Exeter College.
FRANCES CAIRCROSS: They are aware that they are managing the land, not just for themselves, or even for their children, but for future generations. I think it probably makes you a more responsible landlord, because you don’t want to asset strip the land. You want to keep it going.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Whatever the politics now, what strikes me, looking at all this, is that despite our fascination with bricks and mortar, mortgages and rents, we talk so little about land. And yet the words we use, think of landlord, show how central it is. And only a century ago, when land was at the centre of debate, there were some very striking advocates of ideas like Margaret Godden’s and John Muellbauer’s.
(CALLS) Jane.
JANE: Yes.
CHRIS BOWLBY: Can I borrow you a minute?
JANE: OK.
CHRIS BOWLBY: This is my wife Jane, my fellow house and landowner. have a read of this.
JANE: (READS) “Roads are made. Streets are made. Services are improved. Electric light turns night into day. Water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains. And all the while, the landlord sits still. Every one of these improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people, and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute. And yet by every one of them, the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community. He contributes nothing to the general welfare. He contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived.”
CHRIS BOWLBY: And who do you think that was, that dangerous radical?
JANE: No idea.
CHRIS BOWLBY: One Winston Churchill. A local boy, born a few miles north of Oxford.
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(MUSIC)
CHRIS BOWLBY: I’ve come up a hill, a short distance from where I live. It’s a good place to reflect; some of the classic views across Oxford, ancient buildings, towers, spires, ringed by open countryside. You’d have to be mad to want to see all this change completely. But looking at it now, I see other things too. Thinking of the groups who in the past and now are trying to find communal plots of land; the planners who have such influence over land values; the defenders of small pieces of green around the city; and those, who often invisibly, suffer the worst of land and housing shortage. This is a very old story, with very contemporary consequences. If we’re serious about our housing, the land is where we must start.
(MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER: Cry Freehold was presented by Chris Bowlby. The producer was Lucy Proctor.

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