Blog authored by National CLT Network director, Tom Chance
Anyone involved with community land trusts will find a lot to cheer in the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s interim report, Creating a space for beauty.
This government commission has come to the conclusion that local communities want real influence, and that we want more beautiful homes, neighbourhoods and settlements.
They praise Community Land Trusts throughout the report, describing Granby 4 Streets CLT as ‘outstanding’, and ‘empowered community residents’ as ‘incredibly wise place-makers’.
The Commission says that beauty is ‘a much bigger and deeper concept’ than aesthetics, affecting not just our enjoyment of our local area but also our health and that of the rest of nature around us. They write about beauty at three levels: the design of buildings, the design of the local place, and the way a village, town or city sits in the wider landscape.
Many CLT volunteers do care about these things, and especially in rural areas where often CLTs start so they can have more control over the location and design of homes.
But they also care about the affordability of those homes, and their contribution to the wellbeing of the wider community. Could we think of this as an aspect of beauty, and one that the Commission could give more attention to? Their interim report notes the affordability crisis many of us face, and argues that beauty should be a ‘goal for all our citizens not just a privileged few’. What would it take to achieve this?
Not the scourge of villages - ‘executive homes’ - that look boring and cost an arm and a leg, more than most local people could afford. Luxury apartments blight cities in much the same way. All too often, they come at the expense of existing land uses that the community valued - whether prime farmland or an unfairly maligned council estate.
Earlier this week, Beth and I attended the Festival of Place, a great new event that brought together professional ‘placemakers’ with a smattering of community and academic voices. What struck me was the abundant expertise in creating beautiful buildings and places, but a huge blind spot for the social and environmental injustices they are all too often involved in.
One example mentioned on the day was Elephant and Castle. Some professionals involved with the regeneration of the area have tried interesting ways to engage the local community, often in good faith, and much of what they have built looks - to my eye, and according to the principles outlined by the Commission - beautiful.
But this regeneration is overwhelmingly benefiting a privileged few while sweeping away many of the local working class residents and businesses. Aside from the Heygate Estate’s urban forest, saved by a determined local campaign, there is little in the new developments that suggests they are rooted in ‘the spirit of the place’. A smart new leisure centre undoubtedly benefits the local community, but a net loss of social housing and an almost-total disempowerment have entrenched inequalities.
Can development that deepens inequalities be considered beautiful? Can any amount of collaboration and engagement change this?
A CLT’s approach to giving local people agency tries to answer this.
Sherry Arnstein devised a ladder of participation in 1969 - the year the first American CLT was founded - that captures what makes CLTs different to the usual engagement. At the bottom we have manipulation and therapy, where developers have no intention of changing course and just want to slip through planning with a veneer of public support, via public relations work. Standard practice is a mixture of informing people what is coming, and hoping to placate them with tweaks to designs and the odd playground or street tree.
When our development industry works best, techniques like enquiry by design and planning-for-real can climb up the ladder to partnership, so the community is collaborating with developers and councils early in the process to achieve beautiful designs. Exactly what the Commission is calling for, and what many at the Festival of Place were interested in.
But with CLTs, we climb two more steps on Arnstein’s ladder, to citizen control. We find that CLTs then give citizens the chance to start not just with the ‘spirit of the place’, but also with an analysis of its real needs - the sorts of homes people can really afford, the amenities that will help the community to thrive. CLTs cannot change the fundamental economics of development in the UK - much as we might like to! - so they cannot always fully meet those needs. But they do give citizens a democratic means to prioritise those needs to the fullest extent possible.
They also bring in two other elements of citizenship that the Commission could consider: stewardship and community organising.
The Commission calls for long-term stewardship of developments.
There is a unique role here for CLTs, which have a legal duty to steward land for the wellbeing of the local community. In their work on the Kennett garden village, placemakers JTP commented that Kennett CLT weren’t just thinking about designing a beautiful place, but also how they will steward the 31% of land and the 10% of homes that they will own when the scheme is completed. This takes us back to the first garden cities, conceived not just as a form of spatial planning, but also an economic and social innovation with residents as joint shareholders in their common land.
The Commission also suggests that beauty should be ‘shared and democratic’, and later notes the health benefits of knowing your neighbours and the importance of strong community links.
CLTs offer a way not just for citizens to have a say, but for them to come together in a shared and democratic organisation. By organising ourselves, we can use this growing power to engage properly with a complicated process like planning, and take an active role in improving our village or neighbourhood. This organising culture infuses the best CLTs with a sense of the skills and capabilities they can tap into, and with a strong feeling for the way that homes and other assets can help the local area thrive.
They don’t just set out to build affordable housing units, to meet housing need. The community land trust movement is about a long-term commitment to the wellbeing of local places, including their beauty.
Through giving local communities control, stewardship and an organising culture, we can not only build more beautiful homes, but nurture more beautiful places in the widest sense.