Saturday, 19 February 2011

Selling a forest

The UK government has this week performed a widely-publicised U-turn in plans to sell the 18% of Britain's forests that are not already privately owned. The decision came after a somewhat unexpected backlash in which over half a million people petitioned against the privatisation, with funds being donated to pay for opinion polls and adverts in national media. The movement focussed on fears that privatisation would lead to forests being exploited for the cultivation of wood-based biofuels, resort developments, and also to the neglect of visitor centres, footpaths and other facilities that allow the public to actually access forests.

More telling, however, seems to be the romantic and symbolic attachment that people have given to the remaining publicly-owned woodland, the right-wing Daily Telegraph have called our forests a "precious asset" that are too sacred to leave to the free market (unlike almost anything else in life), and a letter signed by politicians, fashion designers, chefs, the editor of men's magazine, GQ, and the archbishop of Canterbury approached the matter with;

"We who love, use and share the English forests believe that such a sale would be misguided and shortsighted. Only 18% of English woodland remains under state protection for the benefit of the public. It is our national heritage. We are an island nation yet more people escape to the forest than to the seaside. We have relied on them since time immemorial, yet we are only a heartbeat in their history."

All of which is very nice, and whilst I approve unreservedly, I think that the whole affair raises some interesting curiosities. Firstly, the sense of a threat to our national entitlements as a people has obviously been raised more acutely in the instance of forest privatisation than in the instances of our access to higher education or public libraries. Secondly, given that we are talking about preserving less than one-fifth of our forests as publicly owned, and celebrating so enthusiastically the "people power" that has ensured they will remain so for the time being, evident is the extent to which we have already become beggars for the crumbs of our own table.

What intrigues me most of all, however, is the symbolic dialogue that has been raised, specifically the notion that the forest is actually ours, naturally and inviolably so, and not to be sold into private hands. Whereas it's easy to think of any number of business concerns that might be thought to morally belong to the people of the nation, the most obvious comparison would seem to be the ownership of land itself, with or without a significant number of trees upon it.

Which is, essentially, the almost entirely ignored concept that is central to domestic social-politics. You have to wonder whether the archbishop of Canterbury would feel so spiritually generous in his regard for who has moral claim upon 120,000 rural acres that are owned by the Church of England, or the £19million that the church has made from selling hundred-year leases on central London parking spaces. Elsewhere, Oxford University (est. circa 12th century) reported combined assets of £1.6 billion in 2004, including £55million-worth of residential and commercial property in Oxford. Cambridge University (est. 13th century) owns much of its host city, and in 2009 spent £24million in adding a stake in the Millennium Dome/O2 Arena to its property portfolio. Most galling of all is perhaps the 300 acres (most) of London's Mayfair and Belgravia that 'belongs' to the Grosvenor Estate/Duke of Westminster, along with commercial properties and other rural holdings in Britain and abroad. The central London estate is the backbone of the Grosvenor Group, and the current Duke of Westminster is Britain's third richest man, with an estimated value of nearly £7billion. The inappropriate and outdated absurdity of our social economy being built on such structures is nicely illustrated in the fact that the Grosvenor Estate dates back to 1677, when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies and inherited the lands of the latter. Mary Davies, at the time of the marriage, was 12 years old, and so the third-biggest fortune in Britain can be traced back to what would, in modern thinking, constitute child abuse.

Anyway, enough of the history, back into the future and the real world, where scum like us have to measure the land beneath our feet in square metres. The average new dwelling in Britain totals at just 76 square metres, the Netherlands manages 115 square metres in spite of having an extra 150 people per square kilometre of population density. The notoriously squashed Japanese still manage to afford an average 92 square metres.

Needless to say that a land tax could do an awful lot to redress these injustices, premised on the fact that, just as with the forests, the land ought really to be seen as a common asset of the people of a nation. Whereas it takes a stretch of imagination to see what right a government has to take money earned by endeavour or innovation, it isn't so inconceivable to suggest that land is the one thing a state can lay legitimate claim to. Of course, you'll get an awful lot of people calling you a communist for suggesting such a thing, although not the arch-free market governments of Singapore or Hong Kong where, in the case of the latter, 40% of state revenue is generated through land tax. Needless to say that it's a lot simpler to collect and a lot harder to avoid than other taxes, and it implicitly removes the burden of taxation from the dispossessed.

All in all, it's a highly capitalistic tax, in the sense that it mitigates against the likes of the Duke of Westminster and a host of buy-to-let scoundrels making money out of nothing but the fact that they have money to start with. It would also be a disincentive to a bunch of petroleum-rich parasites buying-up the ground beneath our feet and the buildings above our heads, in fact, by removing people from a bondage to property, the dispossessed would be better-placed to realise their potential, and those with capital would have to use it in a more enterprising fashion than simply buying a roof and then charging the earth for someone to live beneath it.

So... that's what capitalism would actually look like, what we have is a sort of socialism for the rich, a feudal society with wi-fi.

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