Campaigning for public land access

December 1, 1999

By Linda Kaucher

LONDON — In Britain, many huge estates have been in the hands of the same privileged families for centuries, and because registering land ownership is not compulsory until there's an ownership transaction, it is difficult even to ascertain who owns what. The Land Is Ours movement is challenging this situation.

With the premise "We were born with a right of access to the basic resources of the planet", TLIO "campaigns peacefully for access to land, its resources and the decision-making processes affecting them, for everyone, irrespective of race, age or gender".

TLIO uses squatting to reactivate or assert the right of public land ownership. "Waste" land has been turned into productive community gardens to demonstrate its potential. In 1996, TLIO occupied a prime site in Wandsworth, London, for six months to draw attention to the development of executive apartments while many locals were homeless.

With a heightened awareness of the benefits of organic produce (versus chemically treated or genetically engineered food), many people are seeking land to grow organic food for their own consumption or for small-scale distribution, and to live alongside their crops. Homelessness and unemployment help make this an attractive alternative.

Chapter 7 of Agenda 21, the blueprint produced by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit for local authority action, refers to the creation of "access to land for all households ... through environmentally sound planning". A small offshoot organisation of TLIO, called Chapter 7, focuses on lobbying local authorities to accept low-impact housing on agricultural land.

There have been some successes. "Tinkers Bubble", named after the stream that runs through the communally owned Somerset property, has been authorised for five years as a habitation for 12 residents and short-stay visitors, all in low-impact housing.

The community is replacing the introduced Douglas fir trees on the property with native trees. The wood-fired steam engine which drives a sawmill makes the fir logging financially viable. Apple orchards supplement the community's income.

Other communities, despite owning land, are still fighting local councils reluctant to grant permission for low-impact habitation.

The Allotments Coalition Trust also grew out of TLIO. Allotments are small plots of public land that people rent to grow vegetables. It is often the unused land close to railway tracks.

In some places there is a waiting list for allotments, but where there is less demand, public land can be lost because councils can sell it for redevelopment if utilisation drops below 50%.

As well, the "right to roam" movement has organised mass trespasses, in which large groups of people challenge the denial of public access to footpaths on privately owned land. Their campaigning has resulted in "right to roam" legislation now being considered.

Last spring, TLIO commemorated the struggle of the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, who in 1649-50 claimed the right to rent-free land for all. TLIO held a rally at St George's Hill, outside London, where the Diggers cultivated common land. This site was recently made into a private golf course.

A nearby unused plot was occupied, a marquee erected and a vegetable plot established. The camp lasted two weeks before the protesters were evicted.

The vibrant TLIO movement in Norfolk, an area containing large rural estates north-east of London, this year commemorated the work of the 16th century land rights activist Robert Kett by occupying the grounds of a former hospital, left in a state of disrepair while the National Health Service looked for a private buyer.

Kett, a wealthy landowner, played a leading role in the anti-closure movement, in which peasants battled against landed gentry's claiming of land by enclosing it with fences. The peasants, under Kett's leadership, defeated armies sent to stop them, but they were finally beaten by hired mercenaries and Kett was hung, drawn and quartered. Many of today's large private estates were derived from the legalised theft that the anti-closure movement resisted.

The Urban Regeneration and the Greenfield Environment Network, by pushing for better use of existing buildings and housing stock, and for the protection of undeveloped land, are trying to prevent Britain from becoming one huge housing development.

Community Action on Empty Homes is a project of the Empty Homes Agency. These activists urge the public to tell them the whereabouts of empty homes and lobby local authorities to provide homes for those who need them, regenerate run-down areas and bring people back to town centres, reduce the pressure on greenfield development and protect buildings of historic interest by putting them to good use.

Friends of the Earth have joined with the Pedestrian Association in a project to reclaim residential streets from traffic, and several organisations are providing support for people living in mobile homes, where residency rights are often tenuous.

Woodland Awareness and Network of Defence are fighting to defend woodland, and the Urban Parks Forum is campaigning to revitalise and bring into better usage the often degraded urban public parks.

On the negative side, the Countryside Alliance is a front group of big landowners. It manages to organise large rallies by mixing together a range of issues under its city versus country catchcry. Many rural working people attend the rallies to protest against the depopulation of the countryside and the accompanying services closures, and the organisers have succeeded in clouding the fact that it is large landowners who are putting rural workers out of jobs.

The viewpoint of the Diggers was: "All the Commons and waste Ground in England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Property; but taking the earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all" — Winstanley, 1649.

In Australia, anyone who has driven kilometre after kilometre along outback roads fenced on both sides looking for a place to park and sleep might reflect on the need to challenge the system of land tenure and ownership there. This is especially urgent given the new moves recently to further entrench big pastoralists' and mining companies' "land rights" at the expense of Australia's indigenous people.

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