They say an Englishman’s home is his castle. Certainly home ownership is the goal of most people seeking a secure base for their families. However, it is surprising how rarely we consider who owns our ultimate home, the UK itself. A ground-breaking new book, Who Owns England?, has lifted the lid on that, and its findings are alarming.

Environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole’s exhaustive research reveals half of England is owned by less than 1 per cent of its population, or a mere 25,000 landowners, mainly members of the aristocracy and corporations.

To put this staggering statistic into perspective, the vast majority of the population owns very little land or even none. Ordinary people in England own only 5 per cent of the country. As Shrubsole points out, this state of inequality has not changed for centuries. “Most people remain unaware of quite how much land is owned by so few . . . A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of middle England put together.” In short, “Land ownership in England is astonishingly unequal, heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite.”

In addition, a fifth of our green and pleasant land is owned by shadowy private corporations and firms. Almost a third of ‘God’s own county of Yorkshire’ is owned by corporate and commercial bodies, according to analysis published in 2018 by property data provider Search Acumen.

Does any of this matter? Someone has to own the land. Why shouldn’t it be the aristocratic descendants of medieval robber barons or secretive offshore trust funds?

The problem, as ever, boils down to who benefits. Unless you are a member of the lucky 1 per cent, it is unlikely to be you. Land ownership is an enormous source of wealth and income, as anyone who has ever 'owned' a leasehold property can tell you, ruefully shelling out their annual 'service charge'. In addition, there is compelling evidence sitting on swathes of land (so-called 'land banking') can be used to raise land prices, thereby having a massive impact on the affordability of new housing.

All this may seem dry, dusty stuff. But it affects profoundly the quality of people’s lives. It matters, too, that a small elite gain disproportionate influence on local planning decisions and how communities evolve.

Huge retailers and property groups like Tesco and Peel Holdings, for example, have a clear financial motive to let town centres and high streets continue to decline by amassing land for out-of-town superstores. In turn, we become a society dependent on the car – with all the negative environmental effects that follow.

Of course, historically land has been the basis for human life itself through food production. It is now becoming clear multinational agribusinesses have hastened the industrialisation of our food supply through the creation of factory farms, thus accelerating the decline of small-scale farmers. Worsening food quality and standards of animal cruelty are major public concerns as a result.

Land ownership also has tremendous ecological implications. Take re-wilding large areas of moorland in Yorkshire by allowing native tree, insect and animal species to return: a wholly-beneficial process. Re-wilding is proven to draw down vast amounts of carbon from our overheating atmosphere, as well as reduce the risk of flooding further downstream. However, it is unlikely to happen when landowners are given free rein to screw a little income out of grouse shooting or grazing on 'their' land.

Meanwhile, the government’s austerity policies and belief in private over public good mean property firms continue to make tidy profits from the privatisation of formerly public land, assets we should all benefit from.

Personally, I would love to know who owns York. How much belongs to the public and how much to private corporations or wealthy individuals? So, here is a challenge for whoever takes over City of York Council after the elections on May 2. Commission a thorough, comprehensive map of land ownership in York and make that information freely available in the public domain. Maybe then we’ll see it is time for ordinary citizens to have far more control over the land we collectively depend upon.