In early October the land rights organisation The Land Is Ours held its first gathering for a decade, attended by more than a hundred activists over a full weekend. Dave Bangs reportd
This heart warming revival of a movement that has been in the doldrums for a long time covered much ground. There were workshops and speakers on the CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy), GM, Land Value Tax, affordable housing, the fight against mega farms, squatting, low impact smallholdings and homesteads and their problems, forests, the Planning and Localism Bill, Reclaim The Fields and direct action, and a good plenary with the beginnings of much wider debate.
The attendance was equally broad, with a majority of young people, many very experienced older people, and a good geographical spread. This geographical spread, however, did not extend to a balance between rural and urban folk, and urban land issues were scarcely – and often only tangentially – referred to.
Founded by George Monbiot and others, after the publication of his Land Reform Manifesto in 1995, The Land Is Ours attracted, in its first phase, a mixed milieu of rural homesteaders and aspirant low impact smallholders, new travellers, squatters and environmental activists. It held a series of land occupations on brown field and mostly urban sites which sometimes attracted large numbers and national publicity.
In 1995 Wisley Airfield was occupied. In 1996 an eco village was constructed on the derelict 13 acre Guiness site in Wandsworth, under the rubric of ‘Pure Genius’. In 1999 the 350th anniversary of the squatting of St George’s Hill, Surrey, by Gerard Winstanley and the diggers was commemorated by a mass encampment there, and in 2009 a derelict site at Kew Bridge was occupied and an eco village created that lasted for 10 months. The Land Is Ours in Sussex led a campaign of mass trespasses as part of the campaign in support of the right to roam provisions of Michael Meacher’s CROW (Countryside and Rights of Way) Bill. That became law in 2000.
In the past decade of doldrums the organisation has only survived because of the determination of a core group with a strong line of activity around the needs of back-to-the-land homesteaders, led by the redoubtable Simon Fairlie, arguing for sympathetic changes in planning law to accommodate their nuanced needs for new buildings and infrastructure, whilst opposing general capitalist sprawl. The very eclectic politics of their occasional journal The Land (densely written and wonderfully illustrated) has given us lead headlines such as “Welcome the Recession” and “Muscle Power – The Neglected Renewable Resource”. Other issues have celebrated Luddism and the Luddites, and argued for a revival of horse power in agriculture. It would all have been very recognisable to sandled arts and crafts movement ex-townies a century ago.
This strange pot pourri threw up the oddest contradictions at the gathering. The packed workshop on the housing crisis had a good many experienced activists within CFTs – Community Land Trusts – and was led by a passionate advocate of self-build, but only three voices (including my own) picked up the centrality of the issue of council housing. The workshop on fighting mega farms (such as the proposed Lincolnshire 8000 dairy cow unit) was led by “Tracey Worcester” alias, Tracey, Marchioness of Worcester, married to the Marquess of Worcester, son and heir of the Duke of Beaufort of Badminton, whose family own 51,000 acres, including large parts of the South Wales mining valleys. Her family estate has just trousered £280,000 from Swansea Council as a fee for permission to build a new footbridge across the River Tawe to access their new sports stadium. Only a few attendees knew who she was and no-one (not even me) challenged her presence.
And…get this…the one strategy workshop to so far report back on its recommendations made only three points, all variations on a proposal to make a yurt to take on campaigns. This, despite a history of long running and acrimonious dispute about who was looking after the last TLIO yurt, which probably contributed in a tiny way to the organisation’s earlier decline !!
It was not, though, to the discredit of the core organisers that the problems of horizontal organisation prevented the collation of any proper report backs from the workshops and the drafting of agreed positions at the gathering’s conclusion. They did a grand job.
And it would be much too easy to dismiss TLIO for its disparities and libertarianism. For what was even more striking was folk’s eagerness to listen to, and take on, new ideas. The contribution from the Labour Land Campaign arguing for a land Value Tax (LVT)was well received and provoked debate both at the plenary and on line, from folk who have plainly grappled with the issues and know their stuff. The workshops on the CAP and on GM were led by campaigners who have addressed these issues in both depth and breadth. The appeal (from myself) to take the simple step of affiliating to Defend Council Housing received whole-hearted applause.
Many from the milieu of alternative small holders – plus several conventional larger farmers – who attended were serious thinkers and activists for an alternative vision of farming and the countryside. Within just 15 miles of the gathering (near Lyme Regis) there are 40 members in a farmers’ cooperative to which local key TLIO activists belong. The farm visit to a neighbouring ‘alternative’ holding demonstrated an extraordinary diversity of crop and farm animal production, and value-adding activities, turning agri-business farm economics on its head and proving the productivity, sustainability and viability of even this small low-impact enterprise on land of only moderate fertility.
Way back in the late ‘90’s, after a particularly depressing TLIO gathering, which decided nothing and was attended by few except new travellers, Marion Shoard, the redoubtable land reform advocate (and author of ‘The Theft of the Countryside’ and This Land Is Our Land’, who can be counted as one of the founding influences on TLIO) confessed that she didn’t think that TLIO would ever be anything more than a ginger group, and that we needed to set up a new group to campaign for land reform. Yet TLIO has survived, and the objective need for land reform is greater than ever.
The number of committed socialists attending was difficult to assess because of the lack of coordinated reporting back and the lack of any descriptive attendance list, but there was a minority, for sure, as well as a much larger number who would be open to socialist ideas.
There is no other coordination that takes on the land question at this broad level in England. Via Campesina has a major resonance in some countries that still possess a peasantry, but England is not one of those. Attempts to create parallel organisations, like the anarchist inspired Reclaim The Fields, who have done some brave solidarity work in Rumania, are much too self-limiting ideologically to have much resonance. The Labour Land Campaign has the formal labour movement link, but is entirely Georgist (that is, committed to a land value tax as theorised by the radical but pro-capitalist Henry George). Other sectoral campaigns, like Stop GM, draw general conclusions about land rights but cannot become general campaigns.
Most of the current land-related issues we face have a defensive character at present…and there is no shortage of them…
The onslaught on council housing threatens the final destruction of this beleaguered sector, and related attacks on both private sector tenants and those of other social landlords are already bringing ever deeper immiseration.
The government and the EU are set to dismantle the blocks to the cultivation of GM products.
We have just seen the racist eviction of the Dale Farm travellers.
We have just seen a gigantic campaign against the privatisation of our public forests, yet the threat to them remains.
The campaign against the dismantling of post-war town and country planning (to benefit the big business house builders and other developers) is reaching similar proportions, at least in rural and near-rural areas, and…
The related attacks on the rural planning framework represented by the new wave of on shore corporate wind farm developments in culturally and ecologically sensitive landscapes – like central Wales – is also reaching mass proportions.
The combined local authority landed estate, both in county council smallholdings and amenity and conservation holdings, is deeply under threat, and the rate of privatisations is steeply rising.
All these issues require much wider coordinations to drive them through to victory. All of them pose wider political problems beyond the scope of their sectoral demands. How do we address the profound spatial inequalities caused by combined and unequal development, both on a local, national, continental and global level ? In the face of the global catastrophe of climate warming how do we argue for BOTH the defence of the environment and for the universal satisfaction of our basic needs, with life-changing improvements in our well-being ? How do we argue BOTH for an end to homelessness and poor housing AND for a stop on the encroachment of built development on core farming, wildlife-rich, and culturally important open land ?
The Land Is Ours has proved its resilience in addressing these issues, albeit with a limited and ruralistic emphasis. It is the task of us socialists to do what we can to make sure that the concerns of the great majority who live and work in towns and cities balance and reinforce the brave work those TLIO stalwarts have been doing.
We need to join with them.
TLIO forum for discussion of land issues: send a blank email to
Direct action for food growing land acquisition: www.reclaimthefields.org