I have a confession to make. For some girls, guilty TV pleasures are the Great British Bake Off, or Jamie’s latest series, or perhaps Gok Wan giving fashion tips. For me, it’s property shows. I just can’t get enough of Grand Designs or anything with Phil and Kirsty, so I’ve been thrilled these last few weeks to see Sarah Beeny return to our screens with her restoration project – a 93 room dilapidated Georgian mansion that she and her husband hope to return to its former glory.

One of the themes running through the series is the extent to which the local council have thwarted various attempts to make the house pay for itself, through heavy handed use of planning regulation. As the house is used as a private residence by the family, Ms Beeny had assumed that she was able to apply for a wedding licence in the same way that any other owner of a private residence is able to rent out their property as they wish.

The council took a different view. In an article on the restoration in the Daily Mail, local councillor Matthew Grove said “When you take on a stately home like Rise Hall, you are not really its owner, you are merely its custodian. Planning rules and regulations are in place so that the public can have a stake in the property’s restoration.” Considering that the couple spent £450k purchasing the house and a further half million restoring it, not to mention the tens of thousands that the house costs in upkeep each year, that’s quite an extraordinary claim. The restoration has also brought business to the area as a number of local people have been employed full time on the project.

Of course difficulties over planning rules and listed status are nothing new – many buildings have been lost completely over the years as authorities have seemingly been happier to see them fall apart completely than allow cheaper short or medium term fixes to take place. But what struck me last night as I watched the program was how indicative of the wider picture on property rights this case is.

This country seems to have abandoned the principle of property rights almost completely. Calls for smoking to be banned in private cars are tiresome but not surprising, particularly as smoking ban in private property has already taken place. As a district councillor myself I recently received a complaint from a constituent who didn’t like the colour his neighbour had painted his garage wall. This constituent insisted that I order the neighbour to repaint it in a colour more to his liking and was outraged when I refused to do so. During the forests furore at the beginning of the year, thousands of people were up in arms at the thought of the government selling off “our” forests (by which they meant state owned), and equally appalled at the suggestion that they gather together in local groups to buy the forests and manage them themselves. Somehow, ownership of property has become the state’s responsibility.

And it doesn’t stop there. Whilst researching a paper on civil rights and the European Union recently, I was surprised (although I suppose I shouldn’t have been) to discover that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union has a whole section on “Solidarity”, yet the only mention of property rights is Article 17, which states:

“1. Everyone has the right to own, use, dispose of and bequeath his or her lawfully acquired possessions. No one may be deprived of his or her possessions, except in the public interest and in the cases and under the conditions provided for by law, subject to fair compensation being paid in good time for their loss. The use of property may be regulated in law in so far as is necessary for the general interest.”  (my italics).

Who decides what is in the public or general interest when it comes to removal of peoples’ lawful property from their possession? The document doesn’t say.

Yet strong property rights are fundamental to a free society.

The founding fathers of America recognised that property rights and liberty go hand in hand. John Adams, America’s second president said “The moment that idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the Laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist.”

Whilst the Founders may have been divided over the details, they agreed on three main principles that together protect property rights: the legal right to both own and use land and other goods; the right to sell property on one’s own terms (market freedom); and government support of sound money. Unanimously they accepted that these rights were fundamental to a free and prosperous nation state.

Indeed, it was this recognition of the importance of property ownership for all that led to America becoming the most powerful nation on earth. The alternative is to concentrate property, and with it, power, in the hands of an elite minority. The evidence from nations across the world is that where that happens, democracy cannot flourish and the citizenry are not free.

For this reason, we should be much more wary about the many innocuous ways that we in Britain are slowly losing our property rights, and truly worried that the public seem to be accepting this as the norm.

By Donna Edmunds

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