Cllr Simon Cooke is a councillor in Bradford and a professional marketer. He has been leader of Bradford’s Conservative Group, Deputy Leader of the Council and led on regeneration in that city for six years. He blogs at The View from Cullingworth.
Companies own 2.6 million hectares of UK land. One striking fact revealed by Guy Shrubsole in a Guardian article presenting an extract from his book Who Owns England? Equally striking is that this is just 18 per cent of the country – over 80 per cent of England isn’t owned by ‘corporate entities’ but, presumably, by private individuals or the Government. This startling fact doesn’t, of course, stop Shrubsole from launching into a search for scandal.
Take land banking. Every examination of the problem reveals that big housebuilders do not hold large amounts of land purely for speculation. Shelter say that the housebuilders own enough land for six years housing supply, a figure that matches the requirement in the English planning system for local councils to identify a five-year supply of land for housing.
Yes, there is a speculative market in land – but much of this is investors betting on the outcome of the local plan process: buying up parcels of green belt land knowing that, given the massive difference in value between agricultural land and housing land, it only needs a few of these sites to become housing land for the overall investment to succeed. And in the meantime, the land delivers rent from its agricultural use.
This speculation is only made possible by our planning system. In areas dominated by Green Belt, the supply of land for housing is controlled by local councils through their Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) and local plan. Shrubsole accuses corporate interests of ‘outgunning’ local councils, but provides no evidence beyond Peel Holdings funding a business lobby a decade ago opposing proposals for a congestion charge in Manchester, something entirely understandable given Peel’s then ownership of the Trafford Centre.
The real picture is that the political pressure on local councils with green belts is actually to release as little land as possible. I’ve been a local councillor for a ward entirely in Bradford’s green belt for 24 years, and opposition to new development is consistently the number one local issue.
Shrubsole wants us to believe that government, local politicians and the public are powerless faced with these corporate behemoths but, in his search for bad boys, he makes mistakes – conflating investments by a pension fund for BAe workers with the activities of the company. It would indeed be weird if an aerospace business owned a pub in Blackpool, but it isn’t at all odd for a pension fund to make this sort of investment: the West Yorkshire Pension Fund, for example, owns 101 Embankment, a large office block in central Manchester, as part of its significant property portfolio.
For me, the significance of Shrubsole’s work isn’t the ‘look at all those secret, tax-avoiding businesses owning land’ but, rather, the picture he provides of how land investment is skewed by the UK’s planning system. Without housing land supply being controlled by the Government, there would be no need for land banking and no speculative markets in green belt agricultural land.
Moreover, we now know that corporate land ownership is mostly purposeful rather than speculative – companies like Peel Group own things (the Manchester Ship Canal, John Lennon Airport, the Port of Liverpool) that are actively managed, income generating assets, and the same goes for the land ownerships of water companies and other utilities.
It is good to see land registry information more readily available, but the picture we get is of a mostly stable land ownership where companies see land assets as working capital rather than speculative investment. It simply isn’t true to say that corporate ownership of land and property is ‘biased towards short-term returns’. Nor is it the case that the pattern of ownership is the reason for agricultural intensification, the decline of high streets or the lack of housing. Places like Bradford welcome the attention and investment from property businesses: it’s how we get regeneration projects to work, how we get the houses we need for our residents, and how we get the jobs for those people.