The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston has made the front pages of newspapers all over the world. “Hooray!” read an email from an Australian friend the next morning, “I’ve just been enjoying reading and viewing the pushing of that vanity statue of a slave trader into Bristol waters and thought of you and my brief stay in Bristol. What a great moment in the history of your city. Took far too long but at last the day arrived”.
As many more now know, Edward Colston (1636-1721) was the son of a prosperous Bristol merchant who after an apprenticeship with the London Mercers’ Company in 1654, established a successful business in London, trading with Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Africa. In 1680 he became a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on trade with Africa until 1688, after which it received fees from English traders. Colston took a leading role in the Company, serving on several committees, becoming deputy governor in 1689. The RAC is estimated to have transported around 84,000 African men, women and children, who had been traded as slaves in West Africa, to the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas, of whom 19,000 died on their journey. Thousands who arrived had the initials “RAC” branded on their chests. In 1863, Colston was both elected a free burgess of the city and became a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, enabling him to trade out of Bristol before towards the end of his life becoming an MP for Bristol (1710-14), despite living in Mortlake in Surrey. (more…)
The Covid-19 virus has thrown both housing inequality and its corollary, a lack of access to green or open space, into sharp relief. For some, being told to stay home is boring, awkward and restrictive. For others, home has become a site of confinement, lacking any opportunity to play on grass, sit down in the sunshine or socialise at a safe distance.
Building on years of work by Kevin Cahill, Doreen Massey, Andy Wightman, Anna Powell-Smith and James Meek – along with Domesday Book, the 1873 Return of Owners of Land and Lloyd George’s 1910 Valuation Office Survey – Shrubsole is able to build a picture of property dominance by a few, estimating that half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population (at least 30% of whom are aristocracy and gentry). According to Shrubsole, the state now owns 8% of England’s land mass, although it used to be much more. In fact, Christophers estimates that approximately two million hectares, or ten percent of the Britain landmass, have left the public sector for private ownership between 1979 and 2018.
So why does land ownership matter? As all law students learn, land ownership brings with it rights and privileges (as well as obligations, in respect of taxation and occupiers liability). Unless there are specific exceptions, the land is mapped as right to roam access land, for instance, or as a highway, the landowner can ask any person to leave: refusal converts entry into a trespass. As owners, landlords can charge market rents to let out their houses, developers can – subject to planning – transform former libraries and convert them into flats. Land ownership brings prestige, power and the potential for profit. (more…)
Information about land is valuable, politically, fiscally and – increasingly – as geospatial data products ripe for commercial development. Since William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book was completed in 1086, politicians, campaigners and citizens have wanted to know who owns what. Taxation continues to matter but so does freedom of information. Microeconomics, for example, teaches us that a “free market” relies on symmetry of information: if one party knows more than another, the level playing field is distorted. Money laundering and terrorist financing justify the EU’s pursuit of registers of beneficial ownership. Transparency campaigners argue that open and free data on land ownership is both a citizen’s right and that open registers improve efforts to crack down on tax avoidance. Although rights to privacy continue to resonate in English politics, particularly to beneficial ownership in trusts, the calls for transparency grow louder.
And yet, as these three stories about land secrecy show, we still struggle for information about land ownership and deals. While land registry data is publicly available it is held by estate, rather than being mapped cadastrally, giving a birdseye view of land ownership by presenting the boundaries of land ownership spatially. The paradoxical result, as MSP Andy Wightman has pointed out, is that it is easier to assemble cadastral information for previous generations, based on historical surveys (Domesday, the 1830-1840s Tithe Maps, The Return of Owners of Land from 1873-5 or the 1940s Farm Land Use mapping in England) than map land ownership today. Of course, transparency could be achieved at the stroke of a political pen to find out who owns England (story 1), to understand the extent and range of beneficial ownership of land (story 2) or to avoid the use of “redacting” in “viability assessments” to reduce the amount of newly built affordable housing (story 3). Yet – so far – there is a lack of political will to end ongoing secrecy about land ownership and land deals. (more…)
On Tuesday, 26th September, 45 self-confessed land law nerds travelled to the University of Birmingham for a workshop on Reimagining Land Law organised by Emily Caroll. The workshop – the latest in a series run by the Centre for Professional Legal Education (CEPLER) at the University of Birmingham – saw thirteen law teachers, a barrister and a judge, presenting on how to teach, assess and craft a syllabus for land law.
While the workshop’s aims were lofty (how do we teach the subject we love most effectively?) there was much debate about the proposals released in June 2017 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). The SRA Board has decided to introduce the SQE as a common assessment for all would-be solicitors from late 2020. The new qualification will consist of four elements so that, by the time candidates seek admission as a solicitor, they must: (1) have passed SQE stages 1 and 2, demonstrating that they have the knowledge and skills set out in the competence statement to the standard prescribed in the Threshold Statement; (2) have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification, or have gained equivalent experience; (3) have completed qualifying legal work experience under the supervision of a solicitor or in an entity under SRA regulation for at least two years (or full-time equivalent); and (4) be of a satisfactory character and suitability, to be assessed at point of admission. (more…)
Legal geography is an exciting and emerging cross-discipline, exploring how people and places co-constitute the world. It proceeds from the premise that the legal co-creates the spatial and the social while the social and the spatial co-create the legal. There is reflexivity. Once we accept this premise, however, the hard work begins. How do we work out what ‘work’ legal provisions and practices are doing to create spaces (national, regional, local or private) and how do spatial and social settings inform the application of legal rules and principles?
In a piece that was commissioned by Geography Compass, both to provide an overview of where legal geography is today as well as to consider where it is heading, Luke Bennett and I developed the idea of becoming a ‘spatial detective’. We suggested that there is much to learn by both legal scholars and geographers becoming ‘spatial detectives’ – of learning, Sherlock Holmes-like, to search out the presence and absence of spatialities in legal practice, and of law’s traces and effects embedded within places. To make this argument, we revisited the debates around the case of R –v Dudley & Stephens ((1884) 14 QBD 273, still a classic in Law Schools).
On 6th September 1884, three sailors arrived in Falmouth and reported to the local Customs House, resenting sworn statements there about their recent activities. One month later, these candid statements became evidence in their trial for murder held at the Devon & Cornwall Winter Assizes, in Exeter. This case, R –v Dudley & Stephens, proved to be one of the most contentious legal decisions in English legal history. For the courts ruled that the killing and eating of a cabin boy by these sailors, was a crime under English Law. This was so, even though the sailors would have died had they not done so, as they drifted helplessly aboard a lifeboat in the South Atlantic, 1600 miles off the Cape of Good Hope. (more…)