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Who Owns Sheffield?: Digging deep into land ownership in our city

Inspired by Guy Shrubsole's book Who Owns England?, we investigate the ancient families, secret companies and overseas interests that own the land beneath our city.

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Runners using Council-owned land at Ringinglow.

Gary Butterfield on Unsplash.

Land ownership in England is notoriously opaque. It's almost impossible to find out who owns the vast majority of land in this country. Even the government agency tasked with overseeing registration and ownership doesn't have the full picture.

Inspired by Guy Shrubsole's book Who Owns England?, Now Then decided to use publicly available data to try and find out who owns Sheffield. But figuring it out is more difficult than you'd expect.

Although the Land Registry is a public body, it costs £3 to use its database to find out who owns a single plot of land. With millions of individual plots in England, finding out who owns all of it - or even all of Sheffield - would be prohibitively expensive.

But what impression can we get about land ownership in the city through the patchwork of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, voluntarily released data sets and journalistic investigations that have come to light in recent years?

Public ownership

By lucky coincidence, Sheffield City Council (SCC) have recently been forced to release a full map of their land holdings as an open data set in response to an FOI request.

Sheffield Council land ownership map

A map of land owned by Sheffield City Council.

Guy Shrubsole.

The data shows that the Council is a big landowner in Sheffield. The freeholds for some of the city's pioneering council estates of the post-war period, including Park Hill, are in their hands, as well as the majority of land surrounding The Moor and the Town Hall.

As well as owning all of the city's parks, the data shows that the Council own a lot more land in the north and east of the city than in the south and west. These areas cover a lot of the estates built on greenfield sites from the 1930s onwards, like Parson Cross and Gleadless Valley.

Land Registry figures reveal that Sheffield is the tenth biggest landowning council in England (out of 353). The agency say that SCC owns 16,359 acres of land. Using newly-released FOI data, Guy Shrubsole estimates the real figure to be around 24,000 acres.

This means the Council probably owns around 26% of the total land area of the city.

"It's really encouraging to see Sheffield Council publishing a map of the land and properties it owns," said Shrubsole, who has campaigned for more local authorities to release their land holdings as open data sets. "If only every council in England were this transparent."

In 1927, the Council began buying up swathes of moorland to the west of the city. This was partly to build a reservoir to service the growing population, but also to protect the Peak District from 'sprawl'. Sheffield became the first city outside London to create a green belt in 1938.

Although the Council still owns some Peak District moorlands, they have handed responsibility for managing much of them, including the Longshaw Estate, over to the National Trust.

Shrubsole's data also shows that other public sector organisations - who, unlike private companies, are subject to the Freedom of Information Act - own small but significant plots of land in Sheffield.

Network Rail own the land underneath the station and the track beds for the railway lines in and out of the city, as well as the valuable arches. The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office also own the land underneath their local offices and courtrooms.

Private ownership

Around 15% of land in England and Wales is completely unregistered. This means that details of its ownership have never been submitted to the Land Registry, and that it probably hasn't been bought or sold since the agency was set up in 1862.

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Bolton Abbey and the grouse moors beyond.

James Genchi on Unsplash.

Some aristocratic estates have been in the same family for close to a millennium and the rules around registration mean that even the government don't know who owns them.

However, the outlines of unregistered land are publicly available information. Shrubsole's map shows large chunks of Sheffield whose ownership is unknown even to the Land Registry – especially out towards Ringinglow.

In Sheffield city centre, data obtained by Private Eye in 2015 reveals small, isolated parcels of land owned by overseas companies (the FOI request did not cover land owned by companies registered in the UK).

This data set shows dozens of small plots across Sheffield owned by companies registered in Guernsey, Jersey, Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands – all well-known tax havens.

Individual homeowners will also possess significant amounts of the city's land. Although there isn't any data available for Sheffield, Shrubsole's research suggests homes and gardens make up 5.4% of England's land.

Aristocratic ownership

As a northern industrial city with a tradition of public ownership, Sheffield does not have the same aristocratic land holdings as other cities in England like London, particularly around the affluent Belgravia district.

But looking beyond the city's boundaries, huge expanses of countryside in Yorkshire (one of the most densely populated counties in England) and Derbyshire is still owned by the aristocracy.

Peregrine Cavendish, the current Duke of Devonshire, owned 73,000 acres of land as of 2001 including Chatsworth, which has been passed down through the Cavendish family since 1549. Mr Cavendish also owns Bolton Abbey in North Yorkshire, which has belonged to the family since 1748.

The ruined buildings on the estate are open to the public and are a popular tourist attraction. But the estate also contains 13,500 acres of grouse moor, which the estate says has "a deserved reputation as being home to one of the most stunning grouse shoots [in England]."

The practice of heather burning to create the right conditions for grouse shoots has been linked to species depletion, the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and the exacerbation of flooding in towns and villages downstream from the moors.

The estate's director recently told The Guardian that they practice a more environmentally sustainable form of burning known as a "cool burn", but nearby residents say the blood sport creates an ecological monoculture on the moor.

With little possibility of gaining ownership over the land that encircles their towns and villages, residents can only hope that a change in the law will one day put an end to moorland burning.

Information scarcity

The fact that so little is known about who owns the majority of land in our city is startling. If the Council own 26% of land within Sheffield's boundaries, nearly three-quarters of it is owed by somebody else – but almost no information is available.

Sheffield and its surrounding countryside has a proud history of radical reform. As well as the pioneering public purchase of the moorlands above the city, the best-known incident in the history of land reform partly originated here.

On 24 April 1932, workers from Manchester and Sheffield met at Hayfield to climb Kinder Scout – then an illegal act of trespass, since the whole mountain was privately owned.

Sheffield council properties city centre

Land owned by the Council in Sheffield city centre.

Guy Shrubsole.

The direct action ignited a national debate about the 'right to roam' in areas like the Peak District, and on the 50th anniversary of the Mass Trespass the National Trust bought Kinder Scout for the public.

As well as being commemorated in literature and song, the Trespass also inspired the movement for municipal ownership which led to the designation of green belts and the mass council house building programmes of the fifties and sixties.

Twenty years after the right to roam was finally enshrined in UK law in 2000, an archaic and opaque system of land ownership lags far behind modern standards of transparency and open data.

"With the Ordnance Survey and Land Registry dropping some of their restrictions on data licensing, there's no good reason any more that local authorities shouldn't be making this information available to us all," Shrubsole told Now Then.

"After all, it's publicly-owned land, belonging ultimately to the public, so why keep it secret?"

While there are mechanisms to find land owned by the public sector, including FOI requests and voluntary data releases, it's a different story when it comes to old money and offshore interests.

The aristocracy continue to hand their vast land holdings down the generations in complete secrecy, while companies registered overseas buy up big areas of the city we consider ours without us being able to find out who they are.

If these powerful interests think they can justify their ownership of large parts of our city, the question we must ask is: what have they got to fear from us finding out who they are?

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