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‘On Guy Shrubsole’s ‘Who Owns England’,

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

The Challenges of Finding Land Ownership Information in England, And a Route to an Easier Future’

(Views expressed are those of the author)

If asked, say, 10 years ago, the seemingly simple question ‘Who Owns England?’, I would have felt confident in giving a relatively simple answer. Individuals owned houses and gardens, businesses and organisations owned industrial and commercial areas, farmers owned agricultural land, and the rest of England was for common use, and was not ‘owned’ in any traditional sense. On entering the land referencing industry 7 years ago, I quickly learned my naivety, and am continuously surprised at the level of complexity in both the ownership of land in this country, and in ascertaining this information.

Not until reading ‘Who Owns England: How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land and How to Take it Back’ by Guy Shrubsole did I truly appreciate the history of the intricate systems and structures which make land referencing such a challenging industry. Shrubsole released this book in 2019, revealing the secret nature of land ownership in England, and exposing the huge inequalities in the data he complied.

Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park

The book details attempts that have been made over the past 1000 years to compile a comprehensive directory of land ownership in England, starting with The Domesday Book in 1086. As land referencers, we would recognise this venture at splitting out the country into separate blocks based on land usage and ownership as the first ever attempt at Land Parcelling. It was another 800 years before Her Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR) was established in 1861, aiming to register the ownership of all land across England and Wales, and is currently one of the largest property databases in Europe. Shrubsole compellingly argues that whilst HMLR has clearly helped to make the picture of land ownership in England a little clearer, it has failed in two main points: 1) Title registers are kept behind a paywall. To download the complete collection of information, help by HMLR, it would cost £72 million 2) 17% of land remains unregistered, and will remain so until it next changes hand.

Shrubsole finishes the book with a manifesto of suggestions to improve the provision of land ownership information in England. A number of these would make our role as land referencers much simpler, and I believe as an industry we should be advocating for these changes:

  1. End the secrecy around land ownership information: Complete the Land Registry, filling in the gaps which currently appear in the map as unregistered land. HMLR currently aim to do this by 2030, but no specific action is being taken to reach this goal, and it is still nearly a decade away

  2. Set up an independent Land Commission: England has an opportunity here to follow the example set by Scotland, where a land commission was set up in 2017. This would take the form of a public body tasked with investigating and reporting on all manner of land and land reform issues.

  3. Set up a public register of trusts: Ensure information regarding the trusts set up by wealthy landowners is publicly available. This would allow us as land referencers to get a more complete picture of land ownership in an area

  4. Extend the right to roam to all uncultivated land: This would bring benefits to our industry, making the planning and completion of site visits must simpler. I also believe on a human level; we should all have the right to access the countryside of our home country. Hugh parts of England are simply too pleasant to be fenced off by private landowners.

I believe ‘Who Owns England?’ to be an important book, presenting complex issues in an accessible way, not just for those working in our industry, but to anyone with an interest in how land our country is owned and used, which I truly think should be all of us.

Alex Sutcliffe is a Senior Land Consultant at Mott MacDonald in Birmingham.

Further Reading - Articles and a webmap maintained by Guy Shurbsole, following his work on ‘Who Owns England?’. This page includes several interesting articles and books relating to how the data for book was compiled, and a far more thorough further reading collection than I could suggest!

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