But a researcher says that after years of digging, he has an answer:
Less than 1 percent of the population — including aristocrats, royals and wealthy investors — owns about half of the land, according to “Who Owns England,” a book that is to be published in May. And many of them inherited the property as members of families that have held it for generations — even centuries.
In the book, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, the author, Guy Shrubsole, an environmental activist and writer, identifies many of the owners and compiles data gathered by peppering public bodies with freedom of information requests and combing through the 25 million title records in the government’s Land Registry.
He reached a striking conclusion — that in England, home to about 56 million people, half the country belongs to just 25,000 landowners, some of them corporations.
The findings go to the heart of a potent political issue — economic inequality — that is roiling nations and feeding populist movements on multiple continents. Leaders of the opposition Labour Party seized on Mr. Shrubsole’s findings, first published this week in the newspaper The Guardian, as evidence for the case they have made for years against the governing Conservative Party.
“Don’t let anyone tell you our country doesn’t need radical change,” Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, wrote on Twitter as he shared The Guardian’s article on Thursday.
Comparison to other developed countries is difficult, because they do not have national land registries. Records can be viewed only one at a time through hundreds of local registry officers, they are not fully open to the public and, as in the United States, ownership can be obscured through shell corporations.
But Britain has greater wealth inequality than peers like Germany, France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia — though less than the United States. And Britain has not seen the kinds of wars and revolutions that over centuries wiped away sprawling estates owned by nobility in most of Europe.
Who owns the “green and pleasant land” of the English countryside can be a well-kept secret, in part because a large segment of it does not even figure in public records. Government efforts to make a public accounting of land ownership date to the 19th century, but according to the Land Registry, about 15 percent of the country’s area, most of it rural, is still unrecorded.
“Much of the land owned by the Crown, the aristocracy, and the Church has not been registered, because it has never been sold, which is one of the main triggers for compulsory registration,” the registry, which covers England and Wales, says on its website.
Mr. Shrubsole began documenting England’s estates after the referendum on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, known as Brexit, in 2016. “If Brexit really meant ‘taking back control of our country,’ then I’d like at least to know who owns it,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian a year after the vote.
Real estate prices in England are among the highest in Europe and have soared over the last generation. Mr. Shrubsole’s book documents ownership, maps unregistered land and argues that the concentration of ownership helps keep available land scarce and expensive.
Houses, stores, office buildings, schools and farms are often held under long-term leases, paying a steady stream of rents — directly or through intermediate leaseholders — to major landowners.
Mr. Shrubsole said that by publishing his research, he wanted to start a conversation.
“It should prompt a proper debate about the need for land reform in England,” Mr. Shrubsole said. The issue of land relates to the country’s housing crisis, to economic inequality, to climate change and the intensive use of farmland, he added.
Wealth means land?
The ancient idea that wealth meant land does not always hold true in modern times. But in Britain, land accounted for half of the country’s net worth in 2016, according to data from the Office of National Statistics — double that of Germany and higher than in countries like France, Canada and Japan.
Britain’s net worth more than tripled between 1995 and 2017, driven primarily by the value of land, which rose much faster than other kinds of assets.
“The main economic challenge and the social justice issue is that for the last 30, 40 years, landowners have enjoyed enormous unearned windfall gains at a faster rate than wages or the economy have grown,” said Josh Ryan-Collins, head of research at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London.
“There is nothing that the landowners have done to earn those incomes,” he said.
Even agricultural land has become the object of speculative demand, pushing prices and gains for landowners up further, he said.
But even if land reform has not been on the agenda of the Conservative government, it has had to address the housing crisis and agricultural subsidies. Recently, Conservatives have focused their criticism on the European Union’s farming and forestry subsidy system, which has put aristocrats, the royal family and wealthy investors among the top recipients of taxpayer-funded aid.
Queen Elizabeth II’s estate in Sandringham, north of London, received £695,000 in aid in 2017, or more than $900,000, according to a public database of payments.
An agriculture bill, currently in Parliament, promises to change farm subsidies after Brexit. Instead of direct payments based on the total amount of land farmed, payments in the new system would be based on factors like contributions to the environment, animal welfare and public access to the property.
“As we know, many of the beneficiaries are not even U.K. or E.U. citizens, but foreign citizens who happen to have invested in agricultural land,” Michael Gove, Britain’s environment secretary, said during a debate on the bill in Parliament last year. “It is a simple matter of social justice and economic efficiency that we need to change that system.”
Most of the European Union is also grappling with concentrated ownership of farmland, though not to the same degree. A 2017 report by European Parliament lawmakers said that in 2010, 3 percent of farms controlled half the agricultural land with in the bloc.
“Agricultural land is not an ordinary traded good, as soil is nonrenewable and access to it is a human right,” the report said. “As with the concentration of financial wealth, too high a concentration of agricultural land splits society, destabilizes rural areas, threatens food safety and thus jeopardizes the environmental and social objectives of Europe.”
Scotland, where land ownership is in the hands of even fewer people and organizations, has enacted a set of land reform laws. In 2004, it abolished feudal rules that were still in effect, helping many longtime tenants to become outright owners of their land. Other legislation introduced the right to roam, giving the public access to vast privately held lands.
“The example of successful land reform programs in other countries, like Scotland, should give us hope,” Mr. Shrubsole wrote in his book. “Get land reform right, and we can go a long way towards ending the housing crisis, restoring nature and making our society more equal.”
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