Author and environmental activist Guy Shrubsole, who is in town to deliver a talk titled “Who Owns Cambridge? on October 12, is on a mission to empower people to find out who owns the land in England and Wales.
Speaking ahead of the event, Guy describes land ownership in this country as “a deep, dark secret…a bit of a taboo”.
“The very idea of owning land is in itself strange,” he says. “The idea of total ownership raises interesting questions about ownership and land. The question now is how do you invest nature with rights? When the Friends of the River Cam made their Cam Bill of Rights, this means they are thinking about how to grapple with landlords in and around and beside the riverside land, as there are many concerns about sewage, lack of investment in storm sewers, and on evacuation systems.
“A lot of wastewater actually comes from farmland, for example manure and fertilizers which when it rains lead to very high levels of nitrates and algal blooms which kill fish. Ultimately, the owners of the land next to the Cam also have a responsibility, so this is a new area where people can put pressure on those who own the land next to it.
To do this, you will need to familiarize yourself with the workings of the Land Registry – the government body responsible for registering land. Or does not work.
“The Land Registry, although established in 1862, has still not registered all land in England and Wales,” Guy explains. “15% of the land is still unregistered – we don’t know who owns it – and you have to pay £3 to get access to each title for the remaining 85%. There are 24 million land titles that have been registered, which is £72m for all titles, which is a lot of money. The tools are very poor quality, and if you want to dive into it, you have to get very geeky with data, which means looking at GIS – graphical information system – cartography…
“That’s not the approach I’ve taken, although I’ve paid over the years. What I ended up doing for England and specifically Cambridgeshire is first uploading a set of files to the land registry site which allows you to see the boundaries – it doesn’t show ownership, it’s just a map of the plots of land.
The thing is, you have to become a detective to find out who owns the land in this county and all the others.
“A clause states that if landowners want to prevent a right of way claim on their land, they can do so, but must file a map of their estate with the local authority and pay a small fee,” says Guy. “So every authority has a set of maps on their website, whether it’s a county council or a unitary authority. Cambridgeshire County Council has one and I’ve uploaded it and it gives us a pretty good picture of land ownership as a whole. It shows many, many plots of land and property.
However, most of the land is owned by colleges in and around Cambridge?
“Obviously the colleges, like Trinity and Gonville & Caius, own a lot of it, but it’s of all kinds – they’re also the commissioners of the Church; the Ministry of Defence; Lord De Ramsay, owner of the Abbots Ripton estate; the Thurlow Estate, owned by the wealthy Vestey family (who made their fortune in the international meat trade); and the Mormon Church, which bought farmland in Cambridgeshire in the 1990s.”
Newmarket has “lots of very wealthy properties, including land owned by people of Middle Eastern descent, Mormon estates and the Duke of Sutherland… There are also NGOs like the National Trust, as well as the Department of Defense with various RAF bases. The question with the River Cam is an interesting one: can you own a river? »
Guy lives in Totnes, he is half Cornish, on his mother’s side. He has lived in Wales, New Zealand, London and worked for the Department of the Environment as a civil servant, then Friends of the Earth and more recently Rewilding Britain. He is now an independent activist and author. Who owns England? : how we lost our green and pleasant earth, and how to recover it was released by Harper Collins in 2019 to huge success. The next step is Britain’s Lost Rainforestswhich will be published, also by HarperCollins, later this year.
“It describes the lost rainforest, scattered along the west coast of Britain,” says Guy. “It is in Wales, on the west coast of Scotland, as well as in Cornwall and the West Country. It has been knocked down a lot in recent years and now there is a mission to restore it.
The online event Wednesday is hosted by Friends of the River Cam.
“So I would like to set up a Who Owns Cambridge? band,” Guy says, adding, “There’s a Who Owns Norfolk? and an Who Owns Oxford? group, both have websites that are run locally. There is so much to map and investigate, and I won’t be able to do it all unless the government releases all the information. In the meantime, citizen science is the way forward on this and many environmental issues, such as river pollution issues.
“Who owns Cambridge?” is a free online event upon registration on October 12, from 7 to 9 p.m.