Common – thoughts provoked by a trip to the theatre

August 2, 2017 § Leave a comment


Yesterday, I went to see Common at the National Theatre. It’s had mixed reviews – Michael Billington describing it as “William Blake meets The Wicker Man” in The Guardian.  The play is set against the backdrop of the enclosure moment when, as Professor Peter Linebaugh, writes in the programme, much of Britain’s land was “privatised; moved from collective ownership into the hands of a few individuals.”

Of course, prior to the enclosure moment, the land didn’t actually belong to the poor. It was owned by the crown, the church or a local noble. But the notion of common land was a kind of compromise between what Linebaugh describes as, “the absolutist demands of private property and the subsistence necessities of common folk.”

Common land might provide for pannage (the right to graze pigs) or for the collection of estovers (wood); locals might have piscary rights (to fish) or turbary rights (to cut peat or turf). It provided for a kind of self-sufficiency, a way for the poor to keep themselves alive. As with the poor today, that was no easy matter.

Landlords began enclosing land in the late medieval period. It gathered speed with the Tudors, partly as sheep farming became more profitable, but was really forced home during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (about one sixth the area of England) were changed, by some 4,000 acts of parliament, from common land to enclosed land.” That’s a hell of a lot of land taken out of common use.

And, of course, a poor agricultural worker had no power. No voice. In an article in The Land magazine, historian Simon Fairlie describes how consultation worked. “To make a modern analogy, it was as if Berkeley Homes, had put in an application to build housing all over your local country park, and when you went along to the planning meeting to object, the committee consisted entirely of directors of Berkeley, Barretts and Bovis — and there was no right of appeal.”

Which kind of brings me on to my point. Clearly, this is a mighty topic, and way beyond me to argue for or against. What do I know about the enclosure movement? There are reasons why land enclosure needed to happen – more efficient production, growth in population, movement of people away from the countryside and into the cities. So I should probably stop talking about it. Except that theatre and the arts are suppose to make us think. So this is me thinking.

On my walk from the National Theatre to the underground, this was the sight before me.


Many cranes, turning the site of the former Shell Building into something called Southbank Place, a joint development by the delightfully sounding Docklands office group Canary Wharf and Gulf developer Qatari Diar. According the The Standard, 868 homes will be built, including 160 classified as “affordable” and 52 extra care flats for the elderly and disabled. That’s nice, but don’t worry too much about the fortunes of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar. A studio flat will cost you £540,000, with a two bed starting at £1m.

There were objectors to the development. They included the usual – local residents, councillors, Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society – but fear not. According to CityAM, those voices were over-ruled by the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles. He was confident that the scheme would “provide accessible jobs and homes, and enhance the character of the South Bank area”. So that’s all right then.

I’m not sure how we got from common ownership of land to this mess, when even reasonably well paid people in London have no chance of affording a home, let alone those on minimum wage, or not working. (One of the main arguments in favour of enclosures was that people who survived by working common land “were lazy and impoverished (in other words “not inclined to work for wages”), and that enclosure of the commons would force them into employment.” Sound familiar?)

This is a ramble, I know, so let me draw it to a close by making two vague, probably unhelpful and obvious points.

  1. The private ownership of land has screwed nearly all of us. We are obsessed with owning a home with a bit of garden (and I include myself in this). Yet a report in Country Life in 2010 reminds that that, “more than a third of land is still in the hands of aristocrats and traditional landed gentry. Indeed, the 36,000 members of the CLA own about 50% of the rural land in England and Wales.” In addition, as Kevin Cahill wrote in the New Statesman  in 2011, the tax balance on that land has been turned on its head in the last 150 years, inverting the relationship between the land and the landless (or less landed, perhaps). In 1873, landowners were virtually the sole payers of tax; “now the agricultural owners of Britain benefit from of an annual subsidy that may run as high as £23,000 each, totalling between £3.5bn and £5bn a year. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, pay about £35bn in land-related taxes. Rural landowners receive a handout of roughly £83 per acre, while urban dwellers pay about £18,000 for each acre they hold, an average of £1,800 per dwelling, the average dwelling standing on one-tenth of an acre.” (If you are at all interested in this stuff, have a read of this whole article. It’s kind of heart-breaking.)
  2. The former Shell Building was not common land, far from it (although my son’s state school did use their swimming pool). Indeed, I’m not suggesting that the HQ of an oil company is any more worthy than Southbank Place. It would be a nice change though, if those in charge really listened to what those who know about stuff are saying. Protesters against this development and every other development in London make the same arguments. If we want a healthy, diverse, economically sustainable city, we need to stop building Southbank Places, accept that commodifying and monetising the need for a home isn’t really working and invest in the common good. Don’t put ownership into the hands of the shareholders of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar; no good can come of that.






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