Why land ownership data should be public information
Updated: Jan 25
At Who Owns Norfolk? We recently published a map of the 10 largest estates in North West Norfolk. Alongside this we published a table, indicating the estates’ sizes, owners and sources for how we obtained this data. This data was all collected from publicly available sources, but they would be difficult to come across if you didn’t know how to look; to find these maps, we utilised a set of tools developed by Who Owns England? Primarily, we have used maps submitted by the landowners themselves as part of a niche clause of the Highways Act 1980. These maps are now available on the Norfolk County Council website.
Before proceeding with this project, however, it is necessary to justify why we are promoting this land ownership data. Is this exercise not an intrusion of privacy? We argue that to the contrary, land ownership data should be made readily and publicly available. Our argument can be split into two strands:
Control of environmental resources.
We should note here that we do not advocate for land redistribution, but we do believe land ownership data should be easily accessible and that large estates have certain environmental and social responsibilities.
The estates highlighted in our map are to lesser or greater extents farming operations. As such, and due to their size, they are eligible for significant farming subsidies from the government. J & C Farms, registered at a property owned by the Gayton Estate, received a healthy £239,249 in taxpayers money in 2018 for their 3,000 acre farming business. The same year, the Wicken Estate near Castle Acre received £307,528 for its ~2,350 acres.
Larger landowners receive even larger subsidies, which are in part calculated by the amount of land you farm. In 2018, an entity known as “Sandringham Farms” and registered at the Sandringham Estate Office received £604,884 in taxpayer money. At the same time, the Evening Standard reported that the income of the royal family was $97.2 million in 2019. These subsidies are on top of the other grants made to the Royal Family by the UK government, such as the Sovereign Grant.
Some of these payments were for agri-environmental and other green-orientated schemes, which seems entirely reasonable - landowners should be paid for costs incurred when contributing to the public good. However, any entity that receives public money should be open to public scrutiny.
Control of key environmental resources
The concentration of land ownership in Norfolk means that a small number of individuals have increased influence over certain resources that are highly valued by society. Many environmental resources exist, but in the context of this project the most important are biodiversity and public access to land.
Most scientists now believe that the world is going through a mass anthropogenic extinction, as biodiversity records around the world indicate a global collapse in species and abundance. Biodiversity underpins many of the resources we depend on - such as food production, clean water and clean air. This collapse is ultimately the result of changes in land use, with the rapid expansion of intensive farming since WWII routinely named as the primary cause. Landowners have considerable influence over how their land is used. For example, the West Acre Estate, recognising their ability to help reverse biodiversity losses, recently announced a large-scale ecological restoration on roughly 3,000 acres of land (about a third of their total acreage). As much as I would like to carry out a similar programme, I own a more modest 0 acres, so this would be difficult. This example illustrates the influence that landowners can exert over conservation efforts.
Landowners in England also have considerable control over who accesses their land (in Scotland, the Right to Roam means all non-cultivated land is open to the public, as long as they behave lawfully).The Conservative government believe that public access to nature is vital for well-being, with their 25 Year Environment Plan stating that:
“Spending time in the natural environment – as a resident or a visitor – improves our mental health and feelings of wellbeing. It can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. It can help boost immune systems, encourage physical activity and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. It can combat loneliness and bind communities together.”
However, Who Owns England estimates that just 10% of England is open access. Again, landowners have lots of influence over this issue. Holkham Hall, for example, opens its impressive parkland on a daily basis to the public. This is a huge boon to locals, especially during the recent lockdowns.
Control over the resource of public access to land, which has significant consequences for the public well-being, means it is important to understand who owns land, and whether they are doing their fair share in permitting reasonable, non-disruptive access.
Together these arguments make a clear case for ensuring land ownership data is made free and publicly available. It also makes a clear case for publishing the land holdings of significant landowners in England, opening them up to public scrutiny regarding their environmental and social performance. This is particularly true where they receive taxpayers' money in the form of subsidies.