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Is this a good thing in the changing political landscape in England, allowing land agents to do this kind of thing and letting the public buy land from them?

In the past, such as during the nineteenth century and before, the landed gentry were the only people in England to own land. Typically, they might have been local lords with peerages and similar honours, who owned large country houses and accompanying estates. It would have been virtually unheard of for commoners to own land in any significant quantity, and it was perhaps regarded as the ultimate status symbol. There would have been no land agents from whom the public could purchase land. However, in modern times, and in particular within the past decade, land ownership by the general public has seen a dramatic rise, which has been paralleled by the rise in the numbers of these land agents.

The fact that there are acute problems in the supply of new housing is no secret, especially to land agents. Forecasts of a shortfall of more than one million homes in the South East alone within the next two decades have been made by government agencies. The government is spending more than £1billion on affordable housing for key workers. Their experts predict that the UK population could rise by more than 10 per cent within the next 40 years. The price of land for sale rose by on average 23.8% nationally (source: UK Land Registry) in 2002, with much greater rises on average experienced in the South East. The government has also started to “draw back” many areas of green belt land, created after World War II to prevent towns from growing too large and merging, so re-classifying them and then allowing housing development to go ahead. All of these facts point undeniably to an increasingly acute shortage of homes.

It is not difficult to see that many people would like to take advantage of this situation and start to buy land speculatively, either to use as a long-term investment vehicle or as a means to build their own home on. However, the problem is that most land comes in sites that are simply too large to purchase for an individual – you want part of a larger site, but cannot afford to (and do not wish to) buy such a large piece of land. Land agents seem to offer an easy solution because they operate by purchasing these large tracts of land - perhaps several acres – and dividing it into smaller plots, which can then be sold off to members of the public.

As usual, the Web seems to provide an excellent meeting point for those who wish to buy and those who wish to sell. But web sites’ greatest strength – the ease with which they can be set up and reach vast audiences of potential buyers – can also be it’s greatest weakness, with the problem of establishing trust between land agents, who are often entirely web-based, and would-be purchasers, a difficult task. Those who consider purchasing land from land agents seem to want something more than just to be sold a plot of land anywhere in the country.

Land agents, however, claim to offer a great deal more than just a land dissection and resale service. Understanding the success of land agents requires an examination of the whole process of researching and purchasing land and how they fit into it, since land agents can actually be involved right the way through the whole buying process, not just from the point of purchase.

Although the purchase of land has some parallels with the purchase of a house, it is a fact that most people in this country will have not purchased land before, either through land agents or by other means. The purchase of any good or service costing many thousands of pounds is naturally subject to a great deal of thought, consideration and evaluation by potential purchasers. Knowledge of the land market, land agents’ terminology, legal issues and so forth would be essential, and since most people don’t have this, they can choose to approach a land agent who can help them with all of these issues. Land, according to land agents, is not just land – there are many different types, and each type is suited to different purposes. Land agents again claim to be able to advise prospective buyers as to the suitability of any particular plot based on their needs.

Using land agents, therefore, could be construed as an exercise in risk reduction. Investors normally understand that much like any other investment, an investment in land for sale is speculative investment that involves a degree of risk. There is no guaranteed return, but the chances of getting a good return could well be improved if the right advice is obtained from the start. It is, of course, not impossible to have a situation similar to the one that occurred with the housing slump at the end of the Eighties in the land market, with too much land being available for sale and too few buyers, although this looks less likely for the foreseeable future. But purchasing any investment is a risk, so the usual advice, caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies.

That land agents make handsome profits from the sale of individual plots of land cannot be in doubt. Many to call into question the business practices and ethics of land agents, who according to some mislead the public by selling them land that is effectively almost worthless and that stands no chance of gaining planning permission. So are land agents cynically capitalising on an acknowledged national problem by using it to sell land of questionable quality to the public? Perhaps some land agents are doing this, but then those whose investment in land produces dividends – such as achieving planning permission on a prime plot of land close to an existing housing development, where the value of the land could rise by many times – stand to make even more money than the land agents do at the point of sale.

For one, this would seem to reinforce the idea that land agents are right about one thing – that there are many different kinds and qualities of land. It is not difficult to imagine that just as the location of a house is one of the most important factors in determining its sale price and desirability, so the location and development potential of land must play a major part in determining its price. From our observations, there would seem to be land agents selling different kinds of land – some are selling woodland, farmland and other types of rural land, whilst others specialise in land for sale closer to existing residences.

Likewise, many land agents we have seen with web sites do not seem recommend the protection of a solicitor during the land buying process – given the inherent risks and the buyer’s probable lack of familiarity with land agents’ terminology, this would seem to be inadvisable at best and could contribute to the tarnishing of land agents’ reputations.

The question of the whether land agents are a positive force cannot realistically be separated from the question of whether selling land to the public is a good idea or not. This is not a simple question, and involves not simply land agents, but considerations of a wider social and political nature.

The sale of land could have a profound effect on the local community. For example, if a developer purchases several acres of land outside of a small village, and that land is then developed in a such a way that it does not fit into the surrounding area – such as an out-of-town shopping centre – it could be argued that this would adversely affect that community, manifested by a reduction in the sense of community, more crime, a reduction in house prices and such like.

Another point of view is that by allowing land agents to sell land to the public, it gives them greater influence over what happens in their local communities. If a land agent purchases a site in a similar vein to the example above, divides the site into small plots suitable for building houses on and sells them to the public, these purchasers have a chance to own and live on a piece of England, rather than allow a large developer to move in and proceed with development that could be less favourable to the community. The ability to purchase land, it could be said, provides more equality for the working classes. Indeed, with a wider general reduction in the privileges of the ruling classes – two examples of which being the current moves to oust hereditary peers in the House of Lords, and the reduced powers of the sovereign now compared to two centuries ago – the democratisation of land ownership and land reform looks set to gather pace.

The sale of land, especially currently by land agents, is a hot political topic for a number of reasons. People feel very strongly about issues affecting land in their local area and will fight to retain the protected status of land with great determination. Local councillors and other politicians, seeing the business opportunism of land agents, seize upon the issue because they know that supporting the issues of local people, their constituents, will probably help them to secure valuable votes at the ballot box. They themselves may also live in such areas, and the issue becomes more personally relevant and the impetus to take action more powerful. No act is entirely selfless.

At the end of the day, it is not difficult to reconcile these apparent disparities, between the actions of government at local and national levels. Land agents sell land to the public at a local level, and local councillors and people may well protest. At a national level, the government must take, and be seen to take, action to solve the housing crisis upon which land agents are seizing. The compatibility of these behaviours lies in a single word, necessity: people do what is most necessary to them at the time. For local councillors, it is necessary to secure votes and survive politically, so they do whatever is necessary to achieve this objective. At a national level, it is necessary for the government to build more homes, and for this they need to make more land available. They need to look at the larger picture, with the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, and can mean threatening local councils with government sanctions if they do not achieve their targets for the construction of new homes.

With this in mind, the answer to the question of whether land should be made available to the public and whether land agents are a good thing can be answered by considering what is in the best interests of the country as a whole. It is illogical to make a large number of people suffer because the self-interest of a few, so if it is necessary for the country to build more homes to accommodate its growing population and control the price of houses, then that is what must be done. Of course, whilst governments act at a national level, even the Prime Minister will have a local constituency, and so allowing land agents to purchase land in their constituency could be a brave decision, even if it is in the wider interests of the country.

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