Written evidence from the Peasants’ Revolt (MAR 23)




Submission to the Justice Select Committee on manorial rights



1.      Executive summary

1.1.    Manorial rights are a relic of the feudal system and have no place in a property-owning democracy.

1.2.    Most homeowners, having conducted the necessary due diligence when purchasing their properties, had no idea that their homes were subject to manorial rights. It is difficult to see how a lord of the manor can legitimately hold a claim over another person’s property without equally having a legal obligation to inform that person of the claim before they purchase it.

1.3.    There is an imbalance of power: residents who have been told that a third party has superior rights over their property lack the resources to check whether those rights genuinely exist or to challenge them legally. The owner of the manorial rights does not have to prove his claim, however.

1.4.    Manorial rights can be (and have been) abused by those wanting to make money through charging for access to land or demanding a high fee for mineral rights when land is developed or mined.


2.      About our group

2.1.    We represent some of the residents of Handside, Welwyn Garden City. In October 2013, about 500 households in the area received letters from the Land Registry informing us that the Marquess of Salisbury had registered his ancient manorial rights, which included the right to hunt, shoot, fish and mine on and under our properties. (Altogether about 1000 households are affected, but many didn’t receive letters because their properties are leasehold, and notification should have gone to the freeholder, the borough council.)


2.2.    Initially, some people thought it was a joke. Others were worried. Some people thought it must be something to do with fracking. But it rapidly became clear that no-one who received these letters had any idea what manorial rights were or that they existed on their property (we had all bought our houses in good faith, with no mention of anyone else having rights over them.) Lord Salisbury’s lawyers, Bond Dickinson, had provided a series of questions-and-answers with the letter, but these were less illuminating than we’d have liked.


2.3.    We formed a campaign group, which we called the Peasants’ Revolt, to fight the claim. We are a large group with several hundred members (the largest, we think, of any such group in the country, and in an area not known for its activism). Having had several exchanges of emails with Bond Dickinson, it became clear that Lord Salisbury wasn’t going to back down. Despite several assurances from the lawyers that the claim would not affect us in any way, they were adamant that he had no intention of giving it up. It seemed – and continues to seem – odd that Lord Salisbury should be so determined to hang onto a claim that apparently has such little worth.


2.4.    The group turned its attention to campaigning for manorial rights to be abolished nationally. With the support of some MPs whose constituents have been affected, we sought a review of manorial rights by the Justice Select Committee. We are grateful that the committee has listened to requests from MPs and is now carrying out the review.


2.5.    We set out our arguments below.


3.      Why we object to manorial rights

3.1.    The essence of our objection is a simple, commonsense one: we believe that in a property-owning democracy, there is no good reason why another person or organisation should have rights over land fully owned by anyone else. Manorial rights are a relic of a system designed over 1000 years ago under William the Conqueror, a time when the king had absolute power and the lord of the manor could command serfs to work on his land without payment in return for using the land the rest of the time. No-one devising a system of property ownership from scratch in the modern age would include the facility for one person or organisation to claim rights over land owned by another person without the consent of that person.


3.2.    Although manorial rights date from feudal times, they are now often exercised with a modern twist. While the aristocracy (e.g. the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster) hold many lords of the manor titles through inheritance, others have been sold to the highest bidder. This gives anyone with a few thousand pounds to spare (including those who are neither UK residents nor citizens) the opportunity to style himself as lord of the manor and purchase rights over other people’s land, which can then be used to harass and exploit those who use or own the land.


3.3.    There are now thousands of lords of the manor in England and Wales, though an exact number is not available. Approximately 100,000 households are affected by manorial rights claims.


3.4.    In Scotland, manorial rights were abolished by the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2002, and we see no reason why they should continue elsewhere in the UK.


3.5.    The law relating to property rights has changed several times to bring it up-to-date with modern understanding of fairness and democracy. The right of leaseholders to buy the freehold is one example. We see the abolition of manorial rights as a piece of necessary legislative tidying up.


4.      How the claim affects us

4.1.    The biggest issue for affected homeowners in our local community is that we bought our properties in good faith, having conducted the appropriate due diligence, including the relevant searches. We have now been told after (in some cases, long after) purchase that a third party has superior interests over our properties. We couldn’t possibly have known about these interests beforehand, so in effect we have been mis-sold our properties. This is true of both freeholders and leaseholders.


4.2.    Initially we were worried that the inclusion of manorial rights on our title deeds would create problems with selling our houses, as mortgage lenders might be reluctant to lend to buyers. Apart from one isolated incident, however, that does not seem to have been the case. (We believe that there have been cases of this kind elsewhere in the country, however.)


4.3.    We have been told that the hunting, shooting and fishing rights could never be acted upon, as they would be in contravention of other legislation. It’s possible that the mineral rights could be acted on, but again this seems unlikely, as residential gardens are unlikely to hold many minerals – and, indeed, some minerals such as oil, gas, silver and gold are automatically the property of the crown and would not be included in a mineral rights claim.


4.4.    A bigger concern is that Lord Salisbury might exercise his rights in public areas where he has claimed manorial rights, such as part of Stanborough Park (a local park), the playing fields of the local rugby club and the playing fields of Applecroft, the local primary school. There are, however, no minerals of note in Hertfordshire, so this currently seems unlikely. There is gravel locally, and this might be useful, but the patches of land are not big enough to provide anything of value.


4.5.    None of us assumes therefore that there is any imminent danger of Lord Salisbury digging up our back gardens or local park. Indications from Bond Dickinson are that he believes the rights may have long-term value. (A document sent to us by Bond Dickinson outlining further questions and answers, states: “There is no intention for the rights to be exercised at present. However, the Estate wishes to maintain control of the rights.”)


4.6.    We have not been able to gain any reassurance from Bond Dickinson that Lord Salisbury would need the permission of property owners to access their properties in order to exercise his rights. David Towns of Bond Dickinson told us: “I’m afraid that I do not know precisely what rights of access Lord Salisbury had in order to exercise sporting rights, but he must have had such rights because he couldn’t have properly exercised the rights without taking access. Whether or not such access rights were subject to the consent of the landowner, I cannot say.”


4.7.    Some residents have been adversely affected by mistakes made by the Land Registry in sending out the notices announcing the registration of Lord Salisbury’s rights. The mistakes fell into two categories:




4.8.    Both these errors are indicative of a larger problem, which is the difficulty for ordinary residents of fighting a claim against a rich and powerful landowner. (Note that the burden of disproving manorial claims lies with the property owner; the lord of the manor does not have to prove his claim to the rights.) It was only because our group was unusually persistent that we found out that errors had been made. We would have liked to have challenged the whole basis of Lord Salisbury’s claim (the documents sent in response to our UN4 claims dated from 14th October 1858, 1st August 1876 and 30th June 1856 and, for all we knew, could have been superseded by the many changes in land ownership since then), but the likelihood that we, as a group of a few hundred residents, could effectively mount a legal challenge against a landowner worth £300m was clearly remote. (The cases in which residents have forced the lord of the manor to withdraw their rights claims have all been ones in which the title was bought in recent years, rather than inherited.)


4.9.    Lord Salisbury has made numerous manorial rights claims in other parts of the country, and we understand that he would have made claims on other parts of Welwyn Hatfield if his lawyers had been able to find any maps as evidence. This is significant because it is clear that very little value has been placed on these claims historically; the Gascoyne-Cecil estate (which manages Lord Salisbury’s land) has not been careful to keep records of where the rights are held. To all intents and purposes, these rights had lapsed until the Land Registration Act (2002) alerted Lord Salisbury and other landowners to the need to register them.


4.10. In summary: either the rights are meaningful and give Lord Salisbury some claim over our properties, in which case we want to fight them; or they are meaningless, in which case there is no reason for them to exist.


5.      Wider implications of manorial rights

5.1.    We believe that the continued existence of manorial rights has implications beyond our local situation.


6.      Manorial rights are a powerful lever

6.1.    Although oil, gas, silver and gold are the property of the crown, other minerals such as gravel, sand, limestone and granite can provide income for the rights owner. According to the Manorial Society of Great Britain, one manorial rights owner was able to sell a quarry in 2006 for £13m, but we lack further details.1


6.2.    Anyone who owns mineral rights can use them as a lever to extract money from developers. For example, NuGen plans to build a power station in Sellafield, West Cumbria, but the company was initially blocked by Lord Egremont, who owns the mineral rights below the surface of the site. Lord Egremont asked NuGen to buy the mineral rights from him before developing the site. NuGen informs us that this issue has still not been resolved.2


6.3.    The extraction of shale gas is set to be a major part of government energy policy in coming years. Manorial rights owners may well demand – and be entitled to – compensation for any extraction work that takes place in land where they own the mineral rights.3 This would of course be in addition to compensation paid to affected landowners.  


6.4.    It is all too easy to envisage other cases where the owner of the mineral rights is able to stop important development (windfarms, for example, or new towns) by insisting that developers buy the mineral rights before they can begin development.


6.5.    In some parts of the country, there are valuable minerals beneath the ground, so it’s possible to have a situation where the surface land is owned by one person, and the rights to the minerals below by another. Even if the rights owner isn’t currently aware of the existence of valuable minerals, this can change. For example, in 2011, indium – used in touch-screen technology and the manufacture of liquid crystal displays for flatscreen TVs – was discovered below the ground in Cornwall.4 From the point of view of the manorial rights owner, this is like hitting the jackpot, but it means that legitimate development can be halted while the rights owner is compensated.


6.6.    There is also a risk that home builders could be sued for mineral trespass when building new homes.5 At a time when the government is pushing for more homes to be built, this is a serious concern.


7.      Manorial rights are open to abuse

7.1.    In 1999, the title of the Lord of the Manor of Alstonefield was bought for £10,000 by a company owned by businessman Mark Roberts, who calls himself Lord Marcher of Trelleck. (Mr Roberts’s company bought 60 titles altogether.)


7.2.    According to a BBC report6, Mr Roberts claimed ownership of grass verges and commons in Alstonefield, and started to charge villagers for access. One resident ended up paying £15,000 for land next to his house. Mr Roberts also claimed ownership of common land, including several greens. He said he would lease the land to the parish council for a nominal sum. The council refused and applied for village green status to protect the villagers’ free use of the land. The council was challenged by Roberts, but won at a cost of £16,000.


7.3.    The feudal lords of the manor had duties as well as rights. Lords of the manor in the 21st century, however, have only rights, which allow them to make money from property owned ­– and purchased in good faith – by other people.


8.      Compensation

8.1.    If manorial rights are abolished, should manorial rights owners be compensated?


8.2.    Our view is that, in most cases, the value of manorial rights is small, if not worthless ­– Lord Salisbury’s solicitors, for example, have assured us that the rights cannot be exercised at present – so we believe any compensation should take this into account.


8.3.    Clearly in some cases, individuals have purchased manorial rights as a gamble: they might produce a windfall one day, but on balance they probably won’t – much like the purchase of a lottery ticket. Again, the likely worthlessness of the rights in the majority of cases should be taken into account when determining compensation.


9.      Conclusion

Although our campaign began as an expression of local anger at a third party’s attempt to assert a claim over our properties, we realise that this is a much wider issue that affects residents, councils and indeed central government. It allows a small group of individuals to exercise power that they should not legitimately hold. Manorial rights were designed for a feudal society, not for a modern democracy, and most relics of the feudal system disappeared long ago. The rights were originally part of a contract between a lord of the manor and the people who worked his land. They are now being used as a lever to extract financial gain – an easy way of making money with no accompanying responsibilities.



September 2014


10.  References

1 The Manorial Society of Great Britain website: http://www.msgb.co.uk/lordships.html

2 Irving, A (2012, ‘Peer pressure: Lord Egremont puts nuclear new-build on hold’. Whitehaven news, March 22 http://www.whitehavennews.co.uk/news/peer-pressure-lord-egremont-puts-nuclear-new-build-on-hold-1.936678

3 Royal Institute of Charter Surveyors, RICS Policy Position: Shale Gas and Fracking http://www.rics.org/Documents/RICS-Policy-Position-Shale-Gas-Fracking.pdf

4 Wallop, A (2011), ‘The iPad app dug out of a Cornish tin mine’, Daily Telegraph, February 10 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/industry/mining/8316820/The-iPad-app-dug-out-of-a-Cornish-tin-mine.html


6 Alexander, R (2007), ‘To the manor bought’, BBC website, July 31 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6923705.stm



Authors: this document was prepared and submitted by the committee members of the Peasants’ Revolt: Kim Thomas, Amanda White, Siobhhan Hill Elam, James Reeve, Victoria Odeniyi, Toni Odeniyi, Tanya Whitton and Stuart Stephen. We submit it on behalf of a much larger group of concerned residents of Handside, Welwyn Garden City.