Land Trusteeship

The text below is adapted from a proposal put forward during the ConstitutionUK project run by the LSE in 2015 to crowdsource a  new constitution for the UK, and will be substantially rewritten before this website goes live.

Our proposals for land reform would involve a number of essential steps, one of which would be establishing explicitly that all ownership of land includes an element of trusteeship (i.e. all landowners are trustees for future generations, and owners of all agricultural and industrial land are trustees for the public at large whose survival and well-being depends on them).

We propose that rights of dominion over land should be regarded as a form of trusteeship, where the trustees hold the land for the benefit of all those who might have a right to live or work on it. The Enclosures Acts would be deemed to have improperly converted the landowners, generally, from trustees to beneficiaries, and the remedy would be to convert their successors in title, generally, back to trustees. (We say ‘generally’ because for the most part it would be enough to base it on size of land holding – it would not be necessary in most cases to trace the precise history of individual plots of land.)

The purpose of this reform is to provide a basis on which a landless person could claim land for subsistence but we expect that ‘hostile’ claims would only happen during the transition period – in the longer term we would expect market mechanisms to be adequate.

We envisage different classes of trusteeship. Most farmland, for example, could be deemed to be held through an implicit contract with urban dwellers while other land might be deemed to be ‘abandoned’ and therefore easier to claim (‘abandoned’ land would be in the largest estates to ensure that only the largest landowners might be compelled to surrender land).

Trustees would continue to have the enjoyment of land which had no identified beneficiaries and would retain most of the rights over it that they have today. The amount of land which would in fact be transferred through hostile claims depends on how much suppressed demand there is for a subsistence lifestyle. In other words, it will be a function of how seriously awry the present system is.

Draft Clauses for a reform bill:

  1. All holders of a freehold estate in land shall be deemed to hold the future interest in that land as trustees for future generations. Their duty as trustees shall be secondary to their own rights in respect of enjoyment of the land but shall be primary in all questions regarding transfer of ownership. As trustees they shall have a responsibility to nominate a successor to take over their rights and responsibilities after their death. Only natural persons and agencies of the state shall be permitted to hold freehold estates in land.
  2. All holders of agricultural land in excess of their own fair share shall be deemed to hold it as trustees for those who have left their shares unclaimed. Landholders’ duty as trustees shall be considered secondary to their right to work the land as they see fit but shall be a primary consideration in all questions regarding transfer of ownership and in any change from agricultural use. Trustees shall give due regard to the principle that nobody should be deprived of means of subsistence, nor unnecessarily forced into a position of dependency, in considering whether to hold or relinquish their trusteeship.

Notes:
Legal definitions of land include buildings.
A fair share of land-market-value implies changes to the existing land market, but those changes do not need to be specified in the constitution.

 

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