WHOSE LAND IS OUR LAND? THE USE AND ABUSE OF BRITAIN’S FORGOTTEN ACRES, by Peter Hetherington. Published by Policy Press (www.policypress.co.uk). £7.99. Softback.

FOOD security and housing a nation with an expanding population should be key priorities for Britain, yet both are being thwarted by record land prices.

In the last 10 years, farm land has risen by almost 200 per cent due to speculators buying up thousands of acres annually to avoid tax. If planning permission is given for new housing, prices can rise 50-fold.

In this provocative book, Tyneside-based journalist Peter Hetherington argues that Britain – particularly England – needs an active policy to address these areas and stronger action by the government. The author, former regional affairs editor of The Guardian, poses the question: “Do we use land for the benefit of all our citizens or for a privileged few?

“Land has rarely been a more valuable commodity for the super-rich. In the 10 years to 2014 alone, the average selling price for arable land in England increased by 277 per cent. Land with planning permission for building is currently worth up to £500,000 an acre, making a vast profit for a few and home ownership a distant dream for many, with rural acres now seen as a safer investment than prime central London property.

“While society has changed immeasurably during the 20th century and into the 21st, the ownership of our land remains remarkably concentrated, and a significant proportion remains in the hands of a few owners.”

According to Philip Lowe, Professor of Rural Economy at Newcastle University, Britain has the most concentrated land ownership in Europe. The biggest single landowner of them all is the Forestry Commission with 2.2 million acres, followed by the National Trust in England, Wales and Scotland with 630,000 acres and more than 1,500 farming tenants.

The Ministry of Defence owns 568,000 acres; pension funds, hedge funds and utilities own some 600,000 acres; the Crown Estate – a semi-state body – has 343,000 acres; and the Royal Family directly owns 257,000 acres. The single largest individual land owner is the Duke of Buccleuch who has 240,000 acres, mainly in Scotland, while his cousin, the Duke of Northumberland, has 130,000 acres.

Having interviewed a range of aristocrats over the years, including the Dukes of Buccleuch, Northumberland and Westminster, the author comments: “To be fair, the old landed class are a diverse bunch – sometimes paternalistic, sometimes aggressively commercial, invariably business-focused – and they are sometimes, from my experience, more accessible than large institutions which exercise considerable power.”

But, he argues: “Overall, perhaps a third of our land is still in the hands of the aristocracy, and it is certainly reasonable to ask whether this inherited dominance serves both the country and the countryside well.”