The BSA is making available online some of the features from our Network magazine (published three times a year and available to members). This excerpt is an address by Professor Guy Standing, of SOAS, at our annual conference earlier this year, about the loss of ‘commons’.

The loss of our natural, civil, cultural and intellectual resources during the austerity era has been dramatic, Guy Standing told the BSA’s annual conference.

As part of a panel address on austerity, Professor Standing, of SOAS, spoke about the loss of ‘the commons’ – the cultural and natural resources freely accessible to all members of a society.

This included land, he said. “It is not appreciated by many that during the last 20 years over 10 per cent of British land has been privatised and much of that land has actually been taken over by global finance and lost.

“We have also seen an attempt by the Conservatives and Lib Dems to privatise our Forestry Commission and now they have been commercialising and selling off land in the forests.

“We have lost thousands of greens. The right to roam has been restricted. Urban trees are part of our commons – we have lost hundreds of thousands of trees that have either been privatised or cut down. Water, of course, was privatised by Thatcher and is now run by foreign private equity companies.

“Boris Johnson, when he became Mayor of London, accelerated the privatisation of our urban commons, selling it off to foreign property corporations, Mitsubishi, financial institutions and so on.”

Professor Standing, pictured below, also spoke of the loss of ‘civil commons’, which included “the privatisation of prosecution, the privatisation of defence lawyers and the loss of any respect for due process, both in Universal Credit and in various other respects. The privatisation of probation, of course, was a big failure. But we have also had a systematic privatisation of our prisons, justified for various dubious reasons, turning them into profit centres and, as a result, overcrowding.

“We have also had an erosion of our cultural commons. We have lost the sense of public architecture. It used to be that every council had a public architecture department looking after the design of properties, but we have lost that. We have seen the privatisation and neo-colonialisation of our museums, our art galleries and our theatres, and a loss of public art.

“We have also seen an erosion of our knowledge commons, both in terms of a loss of any commons in information systems, a systematic privatisation and commodification of education in various respects and, of course, you have the development of intellectual property rights…in which millions and millions of things that were not private intellectual property are now private intellectual property.”

He said that the commons “are part of our social wealth. They are not private property, they are not state property, they belong to all of us as commons. It was very clear that the acceleration of their loss during the austerity era has been absolutely dramatic.”

He said that in a recent book he had drawn up “a charter of 44 articles that I thought should be the basis of a recovery of the commons, and compensation for commoners who have been adversely affected by the illegitimate taking of the commons.

“It includes a wealth tax, land value tax, carbon tax and levies on other practices that are taking away the commons illegitimately from us.

“Instead of giving huge subsidies to large scale land owners…we should be taxing large scale land owning and using that to build a commons fund to compensate for everybody who has lost commons.”