Property Rights Foundation of America®

Nationalization of Land — A Wake-Up Call

An article in the March 2002 issue of PERC Reports by Matt Ridley, entitled "Controlling the British Countryside," should serve as a wake-up call for those in the U.S. of A. who might be concerned about the erosion of freedom and private property rights, and the gross nationalization of lands that is pervasive in this great country. It would appear that the citizenry is in a deep sleep or spend too much time at the cabaret.

Mr. Ridley, incidentally, is a well-known British author who is obviously concerned about further liberal invasions in an already socialistic society. Many would say that such intrusive behavior is foreign to America, but they had better reconsider when they hear the sequence of events that produced the current degree of land nationalization in England. The reader will undoubtedly repeatedly say "my gosh, that sounds familiar."

According to Ridley, the process is not, of course, called nationalization, but rather it usually goes under the name of environmental policy. The effect is to remove, one by one, the property rights of landowners. It proceeds with virtually no interruption. Unfortunately, only a few people, like the author, think it is a bad thing. Obviously, they do not get it, anymore than the bulk of U.S. citizens.

In the discussion that follows the reader should listen very closely and see if they can hear the bells ringing announcing that the British are not the only ones. Like other nationalizations the English experience began with direct acquisition, spurred on by the shortage of timber during the First World War. The Forestry Commission gradually became one of the largest landowners in the country. As befits a nationalized industry it lost money for 80 years. Ridley goes on to relate how an environmental disaster has resulted with the replacement of exotic Sitka spruce in even-aged, densely-spaced forests.

Not content with owning its estate, the Commission has acquired the rights to regulate the trees on private lands, having power over all planting and felling. A license, which takes a month or more to process, must be obtained. And Ridley notes, the bureaucracy reserves the right to refuse applications. Other arms of government followed the acquisition example. Bureaucrats soon realized that the subsidize and regulate route afforded additional possibilities for empire building. Farmers, for example, must file detailed maps of every hectare of land planted each year.

Then town and country planning laws began their steady growth. First, areas were identified where development could not occur; such as green belts around cities and the first National Parks. By the 1990's planning had changed to specifying where development could occur. The parallels between the two countries under consideration should become obvious. In some respects the United States may be way ahead of the British in the nationalization of lands. Naturally, a brand new industry of planning consultants evolved.

Mr. Ridley continues on noting that development became the preserve of big firms, with individuals losing leverage, and the countryside blighted with monotonous developments. Special interests gradually captured the planning process. Might this include the pervasive environmental groups of the same ilk as those in the United States? And, all historic buildings fall under the purvey of English Heritage, a governmental agency which has the power to decide their fate.

According to the article, an analogous process evolved in the natural environment. There are areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of specific scientific interest (nearly 10 percent of all Britain is involved in such), areas of high landscape value, and special conservation areas. What a marvelous scheme for controlling everything. To add to the list, Ridley states that, in a process similar to the Endangered Species Act, certain wildlife species provide useful excuses for demanding more restrictions on private owners. He notes that really rare species are no good, because they are not present in enough places, so the agencies have increasingly turned to commoner ones that can be described as threatened. Wow, does not this sound familiar. One gets to wonder which country is ahead in the game of nationalization and abuse of the people.

The net effect of all these imperialistic "quangos" [quasi-national government organization] (Ridley's word) is that a landowner can no longer fell a wood, plant a copse, grow corn, graze sheep, catch trout, dredge a pond, move a footpath, alter a hedge line, or restore a barn without a specific license from the various arms of the bureaucracy. These are all property rights that have been confiscated by the state.

Please let this be a lesson. Yes, it can happen in America. The roots were planted long ago and they continue to grow profusely. The individual must get mad, stand up and emphatically pronounce that the trees that grow on his land are his. And, that he should be able to do anything with his property, as long as it doesn't have a significant adverse effect on the neighbor's property or public resources. However, do not allow liberal environmentalists to define significance, since they will offer a very loose interpretation with little objectivity.

Nate Dickinson
August 15, 2002

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