Book review symposium: The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

by Brett Christophers and reviewed by Kelly Kay, Alex Marsh, Laurence Murphy and Susan Smith, with author response by Brett Christophers

10 Jan 2020, 12:45 p.m.
Kelly Kay, Alex Marsh, Laurence Murphy, Susan Smith, Brett Christophers

The New Enclosure book cover

Book review symposium: New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

by Brett Christophers and reviewed by Kelly Kay, Alex Marsh, Laurence Murphy and Susan Smith, with author response by Brett Christophers

London and New York: Verso, 2018; 384 pp.: ISBN 978-1-7866-3158-9, £20.00 (hbk)


Commentary I: The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

Reviewed by: Kelly Kay, University of California – Los Angeles, USA

Brett Christophers’ latest book, The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain, begins with a simple, yet staggering, statistic: since 1979, ‘2 million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the entire British land mass’ (p. 2) has moved from public to private ownership. Taking this as the starting point and major anchor for the book, Christophers dedicates the five chapters that follow to meticulously constructing an explanation that allows the reader to interpret ‘the how, why, and with-what-consequences’ (p. 3; original emphasis) of this particular wave of land privatisation. Chapter 2 provides a rich and detailed history of landownership in Britain and the state’s role within it, tracing the ebb and flow of the politicisation of land over recent history. While the first few chapters lay out the theoretical and historical scaffolding, Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are dedicated to substantiating the argument of the book in great detail, focusing respectively on the rationale, process and outcomes of the large-scale privatisation of public land. Throughout these three chapters, the argument is carefully crafted, with the author working tirelessly to construct a data-driven, measured understanding of transformations in the ideology and ownership of public property in contemporary Britain. The book concludes with a call to collective action. Since Thatcher took office, 8% of the entire British landmass has shifted from public to private ownership, and this number is poised to grow, especially with Network Rail’s commercial property estate ‘on the block’ (p. 331). In terms of what to do about this, Christophers points to a number of smaller-scale activist efforts to prevent individual sell-offs, but ultimately determines that ‘change has to come from Whitehall’ (p. 344).

If the aim of The New Enclosure is to bring attention to a critical and understudied social issue in modern-day Britain, to ‘render visible not only the extent of public land that has been lost in Britain, but also – perhaps more importantly – the extent of public land that remains’ (p. 331), the editorial choices that surround the publishing of this book support those goals in ways that should be commended. The book was published with Verso, rather than a more traditional academic press, putting it at a more accessible price point than many books by academics. Furthermore, it strikes a tone that makes it reasonably approachable to the average educated reader, ensuring it will be read beyond geography and cognate academic disciplines. The success of writing a more public-facing piece of research can be seen in the fact that the book has been reviewed in a number of mainstream outlets, including the Guardian and the Financial Times. While there are a lot of upsides to this approach, I see only one negative, and it is a selfish one. I tend to turn to Christophers’ work for novel developments in geographical theory, or as a means of cutting through difficult and tangled debates (like those around theories of financialisation). For me, there were not a lot of novel theoretical contributions to be found in The New Enclosure, though this is a minor complaint given that this book is eminently readable and jam-packed with empirical detail.

In the remainder of this review, I make two points about the book, motivated to some extent by my own work on land and capitalism in the Global North. My research is centred around changing patterns of ownership of open space and natural resource landscapes in the United States. Unlike Christophers’ case study, the transfers of land and property rights that I study – while mediated by and through the state to various extents – tend to move between different types of private owners, rather than from state to private ones. So, while there are differences in our objects of study, there are many similarities as well. The first point concerns land, while the second concerns neoliberalism.

First, I find it simultaneously curious and not at all surprising that the vast transfer of ownership in land could happen without any real fanfare. As Christophers puts it in the conclusion, ‘people are much less likely to protest against a loss if they do not know they have something worth retaining’ (p. 331). As countless scholars have explored, land is life; it is vital for the reproduction of communities, for the making of place, and for providing societies with food and shelter. Yet, in late capitalist societies like the US or Britain, the ownership of land and property is also exceedingly fractured and complicated, governed by lawyers and other specialists and kept out of the view of the public. In the case of the US, understanding who owns land often involves visits to local taxation authorities to collect maps that have not been digitised and that are updated infrequently. Even then, owner names are often shielded through shell companies and LLCs, and ownership can be fractured along the various types of surface and sub-surface rights that can be individuated, or through collective investor ownership. As Christophers laments on p. 188, learning who owns land (public or private) in the UK is not just a tedious bureaucratic exercise but is in many cases virtually impossible. Scholars tend to draw hard lines between land ownership in the Global North and South, with the assumption that there is clear and traceable title in the North, and that there tends to be more informality in Southern contexts. Yet, Christophers’ case is fascinating because it highlights that even where title and other property relationships seem relatively clear cut, transparency is still a major issue. He notes, for example, that ‘as recently as 2005, the ownership of less than half the land mass of England and Wales was officially registered’ (p. 189). In a society where property ownership is deeply fractured, and where there are huge swathes of land for which even the state lacks a clear understanding of title, it is no wonder that one of the greatest privatisations in history could happen without anybody really taking notice.

Second, and perhaps it is blasphemous to ask, but: why 1979, and why Thatcher, as the starting point for the book? My asking this question is not intended to imply that Christophers does not substantiate the reason for focusing on the period. He dedicates a not insubstantial portion of the book to demonstrating that the Thatcher government ushered in a ‘sea change in the prevailing approach to public landownership’ (p. 119), shifting discourse and official policy and strategy towards the widespread privatisation of not just public land, but public corporations and assets as well. That said, he also notes that when Thatcher was elected, ‘winds of change … had been in the air for a decade, perhaps longer’ (p. 119), remarking that the financialisation of land was beginning to occur in Britain in the 1960s, and he makes frequent reference to Doreen Massey and Alejandrina Catalano’s 1978 book Capital and Land: Land Ownership in Great Britain, which recognised emergent forces of financialisation and changes in the nature of landownership before Thatcher was ever elected.

I pose the question because I can’t help but wonder if by taking Thatcherism and neoliberalism as a starting point perhaps we are missing out on the possibility of understanding something larger about property and the capitalist state, and about the British state in general – something that transcends the neoliberal turn. It seems very clear that neoliberalism plays a large role in this story, but I wonder if something might be escaping from view by using 1979 as a relatively firm before and after period for the study. A broader view might be instructive in understanding what is coming next, as Brexit will likely usher in a very different set of relationships between the state, society and capitalist actors. It is obviously beyond the scope of this study, but perhaps a study of property relations with a more detailed view of the longue durée could be helpful in predicting what the coming 40 years might look like.


Commentary II: The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

Reviewed by: Alex Marsh, University of Bristol, UK

Land is on the agenda in Britain. That, in itself, is worthy of note. As Brett Christophers observes in his thought-provoking new book The New Enclosure, for four decades mainstream political debate largely avoided engaging with the land question. That was not an unfortunate omission but a strategic silence. Yet, over the last few years questions about land and its ownership – about its use, disuse and misuse – have become more insistent. Close attention is being directed towards who benefits, and how, from our sclerotic housing supply system. The New Enclosure imparts further momentum to this movement.

While land is back on the agenda, the more specific topic of Christophers’ study – public land and its disposal – has remained largely in shadow. The New Enclosure casts much-needed light on some rather murky goings on. It argues that land privatisation is not simply the transfer of publicly owned assets involving mind-boggling amounts of money – received and forgone – but a privatisation with profound social ramifications.

In the absence of systematic administrative data and with a limited literature upon which to build, Christophers set himself a daunting challenge. He tackles it by drawing on a range of theoretical resources, the collation of diverse partial and fragmentary evidence, some judicious estimation and interpellation and a firm grasp of policy detail. The outcome is a substantial piece of work.

Christophers’ theoretical perspective nods in the direction of classic David Harvey, but positions itself more directly in the tradition of Karl Polanyi and Doreen Massey. Indeed, Massey and Catalano (1978) is treated as the jumping-off point for this study. Adam Smith, the classical political economist, is cited approvingly: he pinpointed key dynamics associated with private land ownership more than two centuries ago. At the same time, the book invokes recent work on the performative nature of economic models. There are thus several theoretical traditions in play. But, overall, the book engages with them relatively lightly. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a more consistent weaving of theory into the discussion. Certainly, there is more to say about the economisation of policy and the grip that economistic modes of sense-making have over policy thinking. But the further one goes down that route the greater the risk that the argument becomes indigestible to the broad audience the book deserves. That would be unfortunate.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Christophers provides a valuable account of the mechanisms by which successive governments advanced the land privatisation agenda. It entailed embedding a rhetoric of public sector inefficiency, land hoarding and ‘surplus’– that never articulated particularly well with the realities of public sector land use – and the application of the alien logic of commercialism to public assets. It entails the use of a range of policy instruments, performance indicators and targets to exert leverage and manufacture a ‘surplus’ land problem. Central Government has used a tried and tested method – setting budgets predicated on assumptions about volumes of savings/disposals – to induce public bodies to dispose of land in order to balance the books. Austerity policy has acted as an accelerant –‘surplus’ public land is a by-product of state retrenchment, while declining central support creates the imperative to generate income through disposal.

This story feels like it could withstand a more thorough-going Foucauldian treatment further developing arguments about discourse; the disciplinary power of norms and surveillance; and calculative practices. But that wasn’t Christophers’ primary purpose.

Christophers rightly emphasises contradictions embedded in this agenda. Compelling public bodies to sell land to meet targets for land release and sales receipts almost guarantees poor value for money. Indeed, these targets can be contradictory. Private land purchasers spot sales under duress and accordingly bid low. Targets for sales receipts are consequently harder to meet. This is one aspect of the ways in which ownership and transfer of land entail power and its (re)distribution. It complements a broader argument that public land disposal has contributed to the transformation of Britain into a rentier economy: landlords are extracting ever greater volumes of rent, and life gets correspondingly more precarious for millions of households. Christophers gives us some sense of the scale of the changes in rent extraction that have occurred. He also argues that a key consequence of land privatisation has been social dislocation. The points here are well-made and undeniably important, but are perhaps more familiar. The New Enclosure also makes a powerful case that public land disposal has moved Britain, via an ideological, manufactured account of public land hoarding, to a situation dominated in practice by private land hoarding.

The data requirements for addressing the questions at the heart of The New Enclosure – how much public land there was in 1980, how much of it has been disposed of, by whom, to whom and with what consequence – are awesome. Yet, the absence of meaningful statistical collation, monitoring and evaluation is part of Christophers’ critique: successive governments stand accused of carelessness and complacency in the conduct of the disposals programme. Christophers is candid about the gaps and silences. Distressingly incomplete data mean estimation is inevitable. Estimates of value for money, or sales receipts forgone, can only offer partial illumination. Even so, the numbers involved are eye-wateringly large.

As the book moves towards its conclusion the argument becomes more urgent and inflected with indignation. But even here Christophers is judicious with his criticism. He acknowledges, for example, the behaviour of public bodies in disposing of assets for what it is: acting in the face of unavoidable pressures. The Westminster Government – and more specifically the centre of government – is the primary target of criticism.

Christophers argues that ‘[c]hange has to come, it is therefore clear, from Whitehall’ (p. 344). What is required is ‘[a] new vision for the land …, underpinned by different styles of thinking and evaluation … Given the current lay of the political-economic land, this looks like a very tall order indeed’ (p. 345). Such a new vision must recognise the intangible benefits associated with public land, including rebalancing power relations between public and private. It also needs to value appropriately the flexibility to meet changing requirements. A stronger anticipatory dimension to governance is required.

On which terrain might this battle best be fought? Should an alternative be framed to be intelligible within an economised policy framework – land value taxation, the weighing of intangibles in appraisal calculations or, perhaps, the use of the theory of real options? Or should we reject this vocabulary in favour of a perspective founded on treating public land as qualitatively different from private land? Christophers sees the latter as the route forward. But seeking change at this more profound level inevitably increases the challenge of re-envisioning public land.

No such alternative vision is currently being articulated coherently by any of the mainstream political parties in England. However, policy in Scotland has progressed further in the direction advocated by Christophers. The creation of the Scottish Land Commission is precisely the sort of move seen as necessary, although Christophers reserves judgement on whether a rhetoric emphasising community benefit and public value is made manifest in action. He also identifies a range of voices, outside existing policy communities and political systems, articulating new visions for land. The sense here is that such new voices are likely to be needed to shift the debate.

The precise coalition of voices is, for me, an important question. This is a debate that doesn’t need to be conducted in partisan terms. But when it edges close to questions of land renationalisation, compulsory purchase and land value capture, for example, there is a risk that critique is dismissed on partisan grounds.

At a more concrete level, Christophers notes with approval the translation of community land trusts (CLTs) from the US to the UK, as a mechanism for delivering long-term affordability. Yet, for this model to deliver affordable housing at scale, fundamental changes to the regulatory context are required, particularly on disposal of public land at below market value. Christophers is, I think, right to look to models like CLTs as a potentially valuable channel for delivering affordable housing, but it is a model that typically requires public land disposal, just not to a commercially minded developer. An argument could be made here in favour of mechanisms to put land outside of the public sector in order to put it beyond the reach of the asset-stripping tendencies in Central Government, although Christophers doesn’t make it.

While a new vision for the value and use of public land would be welcome, we can also recognise that current policy directions most likely have a finite life. Land can only be sold out of the public sector once. At some point there will be no more ‘surplus’ land to sell. If asset sales are being used to supplement revenue – which they now are in local government – at some point the policy hits a brick wall and the funding gap becomes unbridgeable.

Current policy directions are unsustainable. There is likely a major shake-up coming. We are perhaps closer to that point than first appears. In a recent report on the progress of the Westminster Government’s policy of land disposal for housing, the National Audit Office observed: ‘MHCLG has identified several challenges to delivering the target. For many sites identified for disposal, public bodies are still using the land to provide services’ (NAO, 2019: 7). This paradoxical statement might indicate that there are, after all, limits to how much ‘surplus’ land can be manufactured to sell. The question is how much public land will remain when the policy rethink finally arrives. The New Enclosure gives us a strong sense of why that is a question of such profound significance.



Massey, D, Catalano, A (1978) Capital and Land: Landownership by Capital in Great Britain. London: Edward Arnold.
Google Scholar


NAO (2019) Investigation into the Government’s Land Disposal Strategy and Programmes, HC2138. London: National Audit Office.
Google Scholar


Commentary III: The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

Reviewed by: Laurence Murphy, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Accounting for land privatisation in Britain

The New Enclosure is a provocative exposé. Focusing on what at first glance seems a potentially obscure empirical task of uncovering the extent of land privatisation in Britain since the late 1970s, Brett Christophers offers an insightful analysis of the largest privatisation of the neoliberal era. From the outset he makes clear the sheer scale of land privatisation that has resulted in the sale of 10 per cent of Britain’s land for over £400 billion. Yet despite its scale, equivalent to 12 times the cost of the RBS bailout, this has been a somewhat stealthy privatisation. It is a project that has been enacted via opaque Whitehall policies, changes in accounting practices, altered municipal funding arrangements, the sale of thousands of school playing fields and flagship social experimentation (i.e. Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ sale of council housing).

Christophers critiques the rationale, practice and outcomes of land privatisation in Britain. Based on a detailed engagement with the specificities of this project, he persuasively argues that the process is deeply flawed and has had seriously negative economic and social impacts. For Christophers, it has resulted in three major outcomes: the rise of private sector land hoarding; the emergence of Britain as a ‘rentier’ type economy; and widespread social dislocation.

Christophers’ thesis operates at two levels. Empirically, he offers a forensic analysis of land privatisation that is concerned with the ‘why, how, and with-what-consequences’ of this privatisation project. Conceptually, he draws upon classical and contemporary political economy accounts of land, and in particular landownership, to reflect on the wider socio-economic implications of land privatisation. Significantly, Christophers is not just concerned with uncovering the extent of land privatisation, which in itself is an important political project; rather, he places privatisation at the heart of neoliberalisation and positions land privatisation at the centre of contemporary British political economy. As such his argument, that land matters, is a challenging provocation for urban studies and the wider social sciences.

Land (and landownership) matters

Land and landownership have long been subject to critical analysis within diverse political economy perspectives. Christophers, eschewing the potential pitfalls associated with discussing the intricacies of land rent theories, offers a clear account of how disparate theorists have conceptualised land issues. His account traverses considerable ground, encompassing arguments from Adam Smith, John S Mill, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, David Harvey and Doreen Massey. Various theories are presented in a clear and concise manner that should appeal to both urban studies students and politically aware readers alike.

For Christophers, land matters because it is an essential component for community, economic and social engagement, and, following Harvey, the privatisation of land marks a new phase of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. In addition, landownership matters because it is associated with: ‘political influence; power [to exclude and include]; income [via rents]; wealth [land accounts for over half of total UK net worth (p. 33)]; and pleasure’ (p. 26). For Christophers, public ownership is important because it offers the potential to enact practices that differ from the problematic and crisis-ridden nature of private market logics and practices. Drawing on the work of Massey, Christophers’ interpretation of public ownership is not rooted in a simple ideology that views public ownership as good and private ownership as bad, but is centred on the potential for public ownership to enhance economic and community outcomes. Public ownership affords the potential to produce more socially just outcomes compared with market logics, but this potential needs to be realised. In contrast, the privatisation of public land elides these possibilities and represents a new enclosure.

The anatomy of land privatisation

The empirical core of this book consists of an extended and insightful analysis of the land privatisation project. The analysis documents, for the first time, the extent and character of this process. In addition, it includes a critical engagement with the discursive mechanisms employed to rationalise land privatisation, a detailed examination of the calculative/accounting practices that were mobilised to make a market in public land and ‘on the ground’ examples of land privatisation undertaken by different government ministries and local authorities. Christophers intertwines the various strands of evidence into a coherent and persuasive critique of the logic, practice and impacts of land privatisation in Britain.

The discursive political processes that have constructed public ownership as ‘inherently inefficient’ and celebrated the putative benefits of privatisation (more efficiency, more jobs and more housing) are shown to be false. Land privatisation has not resulted in more efficiency but has bolstered private land hoarding. The sale of public land for affordable housing has not increased housing supply but has enhanced developer profits. The financialisation of land has not created the conditions for economic growth but has instead imperiled economic activities in cities as a consequence of rapacious urban land speculation. Evaluated on the basis of its own logic and political rhetoric, the land privatisation project is shown to be found wanting.

Christophers’ attention to key policy details and judicious use of case studies elevates the narrative beyond a mere accounting of the land disposal process. His case studies are interventions designed to uncover a scandalously under-publicised and de-politicised topic. He reviews the nature and effects of the ‘ransacking’ of the NHS estate, offers details on a disastrous Ministry of Defence land deal, documents the uneven nature of the public land sales process (over 60% of local authority land has been privatised) and highlights the irony of the sale of almost 2 million council houses (at a cumulative discount of £50 billion; p. 267) that has exacerbated a housing crisis and resulted in some local authorities buying back housing at full market prices. Cumulatively, these case studies constitute a damning critique of a generally under-researched social experiment.

I found that one of the more subtle, but potentially most profound, contributions of Christophers’ analysis revolves around his treatment of a set of calculative practices involving the valuation of land. In charting the shift from historic cash accounting to accrual accounting, he lays bare the performative (market-making) effects of accounting practice. Under cash accounting, buildings and land do not have to appear as assets and if they do they are recorded at ‘book value’ (their historic cost). Thus councils could, and did, value public parks at just £1. Under accrual accounting, assets are valued at market value. This shift in accounting practice fundamentally alters the ways in which assets are viewed. This change, a shift in optics, has been mobilised to incentivise and pressurise Ministries and local councils to sell their assets. Here is a ‘cruel’ accounting that produces a myopic vision of the value of public land that does not take account of the possibility of public benefits.

Land privatisation and neoliberalisation

Significantly, and potentially more contentiously, Christophers argues that privatisation is a central component of neoliberalisation and that, in contrast to financialisation, marketisation and economisation, it distinguishes the neoliberal era. He argues that ‘if I am right there is no neoliberalism without privatisation/enclosure’ and contends that ‘if privatisation is indeed the cardinal feature of British neoliberalism, then the biggest privatisation of them all, that of land, is arguably the country’s seminal political economic development over the past four decades’ (p. 19).

Committed as I am to researching around urban land markets, I have considerable sympathy with this position. Yet, this is an argument that, while provocative, is perhaps a little underdeveloped and is likely to be resisted by advocates of the pivotal role of financialisation, marketisation and politics in neoliberalisation processes. In this context, critics could argue that privatisation has an empirical limit, an end point when all public property is sold off. Would this end point mark the end of neoliberalisation? Surely, neoliberalisation is a more mongrel concept encompassing, and defined by, a variety of issues beyond privatisation. However, I suspect that most readers engaging with this work will focus on Christophers’ impressive mobilisation of empirical evidence to vitiate the taken-for-granted political discourse (centred on notions of ‘surplus’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘value for money’) that has propelled a vast act of enclosure.

Calculative practices

This book renders land privatisation and its deleterious effects visible. Significantly, it concludes by drawing attention to the remaining stock of public land in Britain (over 2 million hectares) that faces threat. Despite the fact that there has been no ‘counter movement’ to resist the land privatisation project, Christophers does not succumb to despair but sees hope in the potential for new forms of land valuation and emerging CLTs appearing in Britain. He argues that these embryonic ideas and practices offer the potential to transcend the dominant ‘commodified private sector model’ and envision a different form of landownership and land valuation.

In terms of urban research and political practice, it is interesting that one source of Christophers’ hope lies in the manner in which land is valued. It seems that the very calculative practices that have been mobilised to generate market valuations of public land hint at the possibility of creating new and different calculative practices. He argues that ‘A new vision for the land is necessary underpinned by different styles of thinking and evaluation’ (p. 345), and quotes a recent government report that states that ‘Markets simply value … existing commodities, whereas an appropriate concept of value … must encompass public benefits whether or not they are marketed’ (p. 345). In this context, I believe that Christophers is arguing for a re-making of calculative practices in a manner that transcends the current dominant market logic and incorporates ‘public benefit/value calculations’ that can accommodate possible alternative futures and the needs of future generations. This is a project that is likely to be resisted by vested interests, but it is one that urban researchers can participate in.

This is an excellent book that exposes the ongoing scandal of land privatisation and the implications arising from the loss of public land. It is a narrative that demands a response, and it is an account that clearly and effectively demonstrates that land matters.


Commentary IV: The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

Reviewed by: Susan J Smith, University of Cambridge, UK

This meticulously researched, hard-hitting and eloquently argued monograph on the sale of public land in Britain since 1979 deserves our full attention. It is written in a clear and accessible style, but that is only one of the reasons why it is hard to put down. Did you know, for example, that the value of the land transferred from state ownership into the private market – without national news headlines or public outcry – in the last 30-some years is, in nominal terms, an order of magnitude (around 10 times) greater than the amount of public money injected into the post-GFC bailout of the Royal Bank of Scotland? Were you aware that in terms of the sale of public land (as a proportion of all land in public ownership), Britain is more like Brazil and Kenya than Canada, the USA or France?

Those steeped in housing studies will, I feel sure, read such headlines and conclude that ‘Right to Buy’ has a lot to answer for. Historians, on the other hand, may reflect on the title and feel that nothing ‘new’ can compare with the level of erosion of the 12 million hectares of land in public ownership before the ‘old’ enclosure movement of the late 17th century. These are both fair points. However, Brett Christophers is not (he says) primarily concerned with the privatisation of public housing, or with the long run of history – though, for me, the message of the book has an impact on both. His point, rather, is that the total amount of land privatised across the last 40 years amounts to fully 8 per cent of all the land in Britain, and has almost halved the acreage given over to public land in that period. So, the ‘new’ enclosure is clearly something to write home about, and this book will become the standard for those who do.

The analysis that unfolds is both theoretical and empirical – in fact the book is a model of how to combine the two. It raises myriad issues and questions. At the heart of them all is the character of neoliberalism. What more, one might justly wonder, can possibly be said about this? The answer is striking: neoliberalism does not, says Christophers, turn on the usual suspects of marketisation or financialisation; its essence is privatisation, enclosure its spatial footprint. After all, land is finite: if all of it were privatised, it would signal a neoliberal end-game in which ‘the public’ has no space or place of its own, and no buy-in to the values – including asset values – this represents (which, financially, constitutes the vast majority of the UK’s net worth).

This ‘end-game’ has been puzzling me for a while, and since a 1500-word review cannot possibly cover all bases, I plan to dwell on it; not least because I am intrigued by the implications of Christophers’ analysis of the changing pattern of land ownership in Britain for another defining characteristic of neoliberalism – the trend to economic inequality in the long run. Danny Dorling, who has written at length on this topic, has recently suggested that Britain may have reached ‘peak inequality’ (Dorling, 2018). However, if Brett Christophers is right about the role of land ownership in the neoliberal lexicon – and I think he is – then Dorling’s claim, which is based on a possible peak in the top layers of earned income – is premature. That is because the driver for inequality in the long run is not (as it has been in recent years) salaries, wages and earnings, but rather income deriving from the ownership of capital, or, in the case of land, from rent.

Just to be clear, The New Enclosure offers a comprehensive and engaging overview of all the reasons why land ownership matters: power and influence; pleasure, leisure and protest; wealth and income. I am only picking up on the last two, and more particularly on how the former is translated into the latter. The book is particularly helpful here because it has some extremely readable sections on rent. In fact, anyone interested in the concept of rent, and struggling with the standard literature, should read these sections because the discussion proceeds entirely without smoke or mirrors.

Although rent features centrally in the otherwise well-rehearsed story of economic unequalisation, it takes a book like this to underscore its full significance. This happens in the penultimate chapter. Don’t, however, be tempted to skip over the preceding pages. I was particularly riveted by Chapter 4 which, with surgical precision, peels back the layers of land privatisation – how multiple public bodies in myriad different ways create and label land as surplus, what impels them to dispose of it (in tens or hundreds of thousands of separate parcels) and why specifically it ends up in the private sector. The analysis is so incisive that even readers well-used to the label ‘privatisation’ will find the narrative shocking.

My main comment, however, pertains to one small element of an expansive Chapter 5 which, amongst other things, exposes once and for all the ‘false promises’ (a rare euphemism) – of efficiency, regeneration, community-building, jobs, homes and so on – that drove the sale of around £400bn of public land into private ownership, but which privatisation did not deliver on. It is the very last section that really piques my interest: who bought the land (developers, investors and utility companies) and what the broader consequences of this are. Christophers’ focus is post-1979 and the results are notable enough, but for me this part of the analysis makes a decisive intervention in the story of economic inequality in the long run.

Thanks to Piketty’s (2014) big book and the furore it generated, everyone knows this story and will be aware that it is, above all, complex. So forgive this thumbnail of the distribution of income and wealth over the past 100 years in Britain; it is probably accurate enough to make the point. Broadly, then and now, the majority of income and wealth was, and is, in the hands of the top 1 per cent, notwithstanding a dip into three or so egalitarian decades from the 1940s. Interestingly, peak inequality in the 1920s was largely accounted for by top incomes that derived from the ownership of capital (capital gains and capital income, especially rent). Today, on the other hand, although the peak seems just as high, ‘a great inequality reversal’ (Piketty and Saez, 2014) means that it reflects mainly the polarisation of income from business, salaries and wages (stagnant or falling for the majority, rising steeply for the top 1 per cent). The relative loss of income from capital – one cause of the earlier ‘great compression’– reflects the irrecoverable shedding of territory through decolonisation and a process of massive capital destruction through war. This depletion of the private ownership of capital (and underlying land) has only partly recovered, but one of the processes driving it is the subject of this book. The result is a (re)turn to rentier capitalism as the new enclosure begins, as Christophers puts it, ‘feeding increasing quantities of commodified, landed grist into the rental mill’ (p. 309).

Reflecting on current trends in economic inequality, Picketty (2014) has observed that: One central question for the future is to better understand the conditions under which the concentration of property might return to pre-1914 levels (p. 635). This is the bigger picture that the privatisation of public land fits into, raising the possibility that the great inequality reversal may be a temporary zone in transition towards an even more unequal world. The New Enclosure does not contain the whole story, not least because of the awkward detachment that Christophers makes – right from the start of the book – between the sale of public land and the (related) commodification of housing. Just to be clear, there is no fudge here – no suggestion that the land attached to council housing is a marginal matter. It is mainly a pragmatic decision, partly to bring other important and neglected elements of land privatisation into light (which the book absolutely succeeds in doing), and partly for manageability, since any one of these matters merits a book in itself. But for me it is, still, awkward because all the way through, housing (more properly the land underlying it, which in the UK economy is generally indivisible from it) is the elephant in the room.

Take, for example, the overall conclusion where Christophers prompts us to think again about why a shift into private ownership of half the then-remaining public land did not reach the headlines or attract opposition. Part of the answer is that it was a piecemeal process which was never designed with the public interest in mind; it was convenient to keep it quiet. Equally, though, it was ushered in on the coattails of the most popular policy initiative introduced by any government – the sale of council housing at discounted rates to sitting tenants. For all that the sale of council housing (together with other interventions to boost owner occupation) proceeded with razzmatazz while the disposal of (other) public land did not, it is all part of a piece driving a post-1970s turn to economic inequality. The much bigger question is why that – the U-turn to inequality – stayed under the political and popular radar for so long (until the GFC finally tore off the emperor’s new clothes). And the answer to that question is that for a short window of time – as neoliberalism embarked on the privatisation of everything (including public land) – a wave of wealth swept into the ordinary economy through the expansion of owner occupation. It took the edge off stagnating incomes, and diverted attention from the growth of the super-rich.

Today that has changed: as public land continues to enter the marketplace, housing wealth is washing out of ordinary owner occupation (where it is in the hands of the many) and into the portfolios of the few, boosting the new rentier class that Christophers has identified. This is perhaps a footnote to The New Enclosure, though it is an argument I am trying to develop elsewhere. What it suggests is this. First, the £400bn of assets that Christophers estimates has been sold has either gone straight into the coffers of the wealthy 1, or 10, per cent, or will get there eventually via the filter of home ownership built on what was public land (which, for anyone outside the 10 per cent, is increasingly a passing phase). Second, while all of these privatisations are about the same thing – the ongoing concentration of wealth and the polarisation of incomes deriving from it – the indications are that there is still some way to go. There is still public land to sell and a political climate favouring that; all land is finite so user costs will rise (i.e. rents will increase); and although Christophers reiterates from time to time that land is indivisible, in a financialised world this is not entirely correct – financial instruments can make the ownership and asset value of land as divisible as you like, and we all know who reaps the profits of such initiatives.

In short, this book is a great read for many reasons. It is a stimulating, thought-provoking, impressively well-researched piece of detective work that will (as my colleague Mia Gray exclaimed when I spotted the book cover on her desk) undoubtedly become a classic. There is something in it for everyone worried about the advance of neoliberalism and the impacts of inequality. And it is its own big picture. But for me it adds a substantial piece to a larger puzzle, namely the conditions under which the concentration of property might return to pre-1914 levels. If Christophers is right, the spatial footprint of neoliberalism still has room to expand, and the end-game is not yet on. We should therefore be wary of thinking that income (let alone wealth) inequality has reached its zenith.



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The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain: A reply to our critics

Brett Christophers, Uppsala University, Sweden

After privatisation?

The New Enclosure is a book about the largescale-albeit-not-complete privatisation of public land in Britain since the end of the 1970s, and it is a book that posits privatisation – especially, though not only, land privatisation – as the essence of what has come to be termed ‘neoliberalism’, or at least of neoliberalism in its distinctively British guise. At the end of the book I asked the type of question that it is relatively customary to ask in closing studies that trace the development of historical processes to the present day: What comes next? In this case: Will the UK public sector continue to privatise public land? Or will it halt, or even reverse, this process – perhaps, in doing so, halting or even reversing neoliberalisation?

This question dominates the four commentaries on the book assembled here, for which I thank the authors and the Urban Studies editors fulsomely. To be sure, it is not the only issue raised, but its ubiquity is notable. What will happen to what remains of Britain’s public land, and – especially in Alex Marsh and Larry Murphy’s commentaries – what sets of ideas and arguments will animate the political and policy fields within which the future of such land will be decided? This is where the four commentators direct their critical enquiry, and as such it is here that I will focus in my response.

To address this question, I take my cues directly from Kelly Kay and Susan Smith, both of whom suggest in their respective commentaries that The New Enclosure’s historical framing is too limited to enable a meaningful or reliable prognosis. As they say, the book is overwhelmingly focused on the period since the 1970s, and this circumscription has analytical consequences. Kay surmises that ‘a more detailed view of the longue durée could be helpful in predicting what the coming 40 years might look like’; Smith concurs, asking, in turn, about ‘the long run of history’ and ‘the bigger picture that the privatisation of public land fits into’ particularly vis-a-vis long-run patterns of inequality.

In what follows, I certainly don’t pretend to offer an answer. There is no crystal ball-gazing. Rather, what I want to suggest in the short space available is that the answer one gives to the ‘what comes next?’ question, not just when it comes to public land but when it comes to UK (and perhaps even Western) political economy more generally, is likely shaped to a significant extent by how one views the 40-year neoliberal period examined in The New Enclosure within the wider historical context that interests Kay and Smith.

Here, the common position is that neoliberalism is some sort of historic aberration, a predatory ‘corruption’ of capitalism, as Guy Standing (2016) has it, relative to what is presumably its more ‘normal’ form. The title of Aihwa Ong’s (2006) influential book on the subject –Neoliberalism as Exception– perhaps captures this position best.

If this is how we think about ‘our’ moment in history, then it strikes me as being highly likely that we would take the view that it is only a matter of time before we wake up from what Wendy Brown (2006) felicitously labelled the neoliberal ‘nightmare’. At some point, when the elites push their luck too far, unable to resist having their cake and eating it, the excesses of neoliberalism will be reversed and we will return to the relative ‘normality’ of postwar capitalism. In the UK case, and returning to the subject of my book, this would most probably mean, inter alia, reversing the trend of privatising land.

It is certainly a soothing and consolatory narrative, even if, where history is concerned, it is blinkered and conservative. (In certain respects, as Michael Webber and David Rigby (1996) and others have shown, the ‘golden age’ narrative of postwar capitalism is an illusion, especially from the perspective of those who were never afforded the ostensible ‘freedoms’ of Keynesian liberalism.) And, if I read him right, it is more or less the narrative offered by Marsh in his commentary, at least where likely future trajectories are in question. ‘Current policy directions are unsustainable’, Marsh writes. ‘There is likely a major shake-up coming. We are perhaps closer to that point’– the point at which we awake from the nightmare? –‘than first appears.’

An alternative positioning of neoliberalism within the longue durée of capitalism is more troubling. From this perspective, there is nothing particularly exceptional about neoliberalism at all. Rather, neoliberalism, or something very much like it, is, to the extent that we can even think in such terms, the capitalist ‘norm’, the type of political-economic configuration to which capital and the social institutions arrayed around it generally tend. Seen this way, what was exceptional in the capitalist long run was not the last 40 years so much as the 30 or 40 years that preceded them – the somewhat-mythical postwar ‘golden age’.

This, of course, is Thomas Piketty’s (2014) sense, and it is increasingly also my own. As I argue in The New Enclosure, none of the supposed hallmarks of neoliberalism is distinctive to it, except largescale privatisation. Financialisation. Rentierism. Marketisation. Economisation. External economic integration (aka globalisation). Monopolisation. All had become notable features of the advanced industrialised capitalist societies by the time those societies had reached some sort of maturity – which is to say, had become properly ‘capitalist’– in the late 19th century. And it is a good bet that privatisation would have accompanied the aforementioned developments if there had been substantive stocks of state assets to privatise at the time.

The suggestion, then, is that those things we think of as decisively ‘neoliberal’ are not new but are actually endemic to liberal capitalism in the long run, only retreating from view for a relatively short period of time in the mid-20th century. Here I am minded to quote Will Self (2015), who says the following about the UK’s current housing crisis and how we tend to think about it:

It would, in a way, be comforting to see this parlous state of affairs as unprecedented. But, of course, it is not the rack-renting of slum landlords that is a novelty, nor the willingness of capital-rich Britons to happily sit on their rentier backsides while their less well-off fellow citizens go to hell in a wonky handcart knocked up out of rotting MDF [Medium Density Fibreboard]. On the contrary: it turns out it was the unprecedented postwar housebuilding boom that was an anomaly.


If we ponder potential futures (including of public land) from this very different perspective on the long run, it seems more reasonable to expect more of the same rather than an abrupt awakening. This is where Smith lands in her commentary. Contra expectations/hopes of a return to some sort of ‘normality’, and contra Danny Dorling’s claim that UK inequality may have peaked, Smith thinks it is more likely that things will carry on as they are: public land will continue to be sold and inequality will continue to get worse, the latter partly because of the former (‘the driver for inequality in the long run is not (as it has been in recent years) salaries, wages and earnings, but rather income deriving from the ownership of capital, or, in the case of land, from rent’). What needs emphasising here is the analytical reasoning underpinning Smith’s prognosis, which is precisely a longue durée conceptualisation. As she says, the ‘depletion of the private ownership of capital (and underlying land)’ in Britain during the brief mid-20th-century Keynesian hiatus ‘has only partly recovered’. In other words, and again citing Smith’s commentary, where ‘the ongoing concentration of wealth and the polarisation of incomes deriving from it’ are concerned, ‘there is still some way to go. There is still public land to sell and a political climate favouring that … [T]he spatial footprint of neoliberalism still has room to expand.’

Yes it does. But as I see it the key lesson of history is not so much that there is probably further to go. It pertains rather to what happens when we have gone (fallen?) as far as we can. Interestingly, both Murphy and Smith use similar ‘terminal’ language here. Imagining ‘an end point when all public property is sold off’, Murphy asks: ‘Would this end point mark the end of neoliberalisation?’ Smith, meanwhile, suggests that such a scenario – the total privatisation of land –‘would signal a neoliberal end-game in which “the public” has no space or place of its own, and no buy-in to the values – including asset values – this represents’. The comforting view, as I have indicated, is that once we reach or near such an ‘end-game’ one can expect a ‘natural’ rebound, a quasi-automatic return to some sort of more reassuring normality. That, however, is not what I glean from the longue durée. Considering how capitalism has developed historically, it strikes me as being at least if not more likely that the neoliberal end-game envisioned by Murphy and Smith is the norm that capitalism asymptotically approaches (without ever quite realising it) as opposed to an extreme or exceptional state from which ‘recovery’ is inevitable. Neoliberalism, then, is not a nightmare from which an awakening is overdue but, as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (2019) have recently conjectured, a never-ending nightmare.

For actually, worryingly, the nominally ‘extreme’ political-economic forms that Marsh optimistically dubs ‘unsustainable’ have, historically, proven reasonably robust. It is true that when they cohered in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they did not last forever. But something more ‘comforting’– postwar Keynesianism – was of course only brought about by total systemic breakdown: not one but two world wars, with a global depression sandwiched in between them for good measure. Such fundamental eruptions in the global political-economic fabric represent, I suspect, a rather bigger ‘shake-up’ than Marsh has in mind. It is a sobering thought, too, that the 2007−2008 global financial crisis and ensuing recession did precisely nothing to change the prevailing direction of travel. How’s that for sustainable? One can only hope that my reading of history is wrong and that it doesn’t take a shake-up of a similar order of magnitude – if not global war then climate catastrophe or, more likely still, both – to pull us back from the neoliberal/capitalist brink.



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