Twice in the last few weeks people have used the board game Monopoly as an allegory to explain a situation that requires resolving. Two different people, describing two different scenarios both struck by the way personal wealth outstrips the common good. One was in Kilmacolm describing the issue over the prospect of land at Knapps dam and North Denniston being sold to property developers and robbing the local population of the use of the land for bonfires, walking, equestrian events and access. The second was at a conference on basic income when an American entrepreneur questioned the multi-national giants buying up huge swathes of land for mining, amongst other industries and denying the local population the profits from their land. The allegory is simple, people buy land and they and their companies benefit but the common good is denied. Just like in the board game Monopoly, only one person wins. Buying up properties denies others free access. Building on that property defines its use within the public sphere and generates money for the owner, everyone else pays. The clue is in the name.
The common good and the ideal that we all have a share in common ground is not new. Eight hundred years ago the Magna Carta was written as an attempt to placate factions that threatened the supremacy of the crown. It is often, mistakenly in my view, viewed as a document that protects personal liberties. I find it frustrating that Westminster is quick to celebrate the Magna Carta and portray it as a valued piece of work and at the same time be so selective in their points of reference. Specifically they like to ignore the companion document known as the ‘Charter of the Forests’. This document was less popular amongst the landed gentry as it stated, “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.” Common land for the common good.
The idea that land can be bought and owned by individuals and corporations and not utilised in a fashion that benefits everyone goes against the grain. I am not proposing a hippy commune utopia but the more the land can be used for the community, the more we all, as members of that community, benefit. Land banked is land under-utilised. There is of course, as in most things, a need for compromise. Businesses must be able to expand and therefore some will want to purchase land that their existing business can grow into or purchase land that a complementary business can be located on. In these circumstances compromise could be sought as it is clear that in the long term the community would benefit. But too many old buildings have been bought up and subsequently been allowed to fall into disrepair prior to being demolished. The house building project at Castlebank in Port Glasgow where Broadstone House was and the Highlanders Academy that used to stand on Mount Pleasant Street in Greenock being just two examples of cultural vandalism. And on our unique shore Inchgreen dry dock has been idle for years while ship fitting and refitting work goes elsewhere. That does not serve Inverclyde or the wider community well. Too much land is in the hands of too few. They seem to be following the advice of Mark Twain “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”. Which is maybe why a Scottish Government report stated that “currently 432 private land owners own 50% of the private land in rural Scotland. The latest estimate of Scotland’s population is 5,327,000, so this means that half of a fundamental resource for the country is owned by 0.008% of the population. As a measure of inequality in a modern democracy, this is exceptional and is in need of explanation”.
Large strips of Inverclyde’s coast are out of bounds to the public. We are barred from enjoying the views or fishing the waters. The wind that blows the turbines, the glorious rain that fuels the hydro stations, the tides that ebb and flow are harnessed and sold back to us. It reminds me of the days when we were all encouraged to buy shares in the energy suppliers. It reminds me that before we privatised them we already owned them!
The common land that is our land should never be solely under the control of private businesses or individuals. The common good benefits all. Monopoly always has more losers than winners.