Land! O but my heart is with you

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Our CEO, Tom Chance, launches a new research report about CLTs that are stewarding land for Sustainable Agriculture and Nature Restoration in England, written by Graciela Romero-Vasquez on behalf of Shared Assets.

Credit: Yiannis Katsaris Image of 3 people waving at London CLT's Citizen's House opening

Image of Middle Marches CLT, Shropshire based CLT and Advice Hub for CLTs stewarding land. 

The heartland of community ownership in the UK is undoubtedly the highlands and islands of Scotland. Our sister body, Community Land Scotland, grew from deep roots in the ownership of crofts, farmland and forestry in the highlands and islands. Their members own homes, too, and community centres, shops, and more besides. But they are clear that sitting underneath everything is the land, and that is what they aim to own.

Across the pond there are further great examples of CLTs doing this. I’ve written and spoken many times about Dudley Street CLT in Boston. Or take Lopez CLT in the state of Washington, USA. Since 1989 they’ve bought 116 acres of land, which they steward for the local community. They lease it to six housing co-ops, two farms, some community-supported agriculture, a car share, a business incubator and a host of other interesting community activities, as well as operating six of their own affordable rental homes. They’re currently fundraising to buy 17.5 acres of land out from under a farm/bakery and lease it back to the business owners so they can farm and bake without the debt, while the CLT will hold the land in trust, ensuring that it is forever in service of the local food system.

There are green shoots of this kind of approach in England & Wales. Members of our network own farmland, nature reserves, orchards, shops, workspace, pubs, commercial units, roads, community centres, energy infrastructure and, yes, homes. Middle Marches CLT in Shropshire has broken new ground in working with local people across the AONB to acquire farmland and fields to promote climate resilience, nature restoration and the local economy.

But few CLTs have sought land for these purposes, and the CLT model has not been picked up by the wider social movements, NGOs, businesses and policymakers interested in land reform, farming and forestry in England or Wales.

One reason is that people often think CLTs are just about housing, despite ‘land’ being in the name. We’ve helped to create this impression with so much visible campaigning and work on housing. So community groups not focused on housing create new terms like ‘ecological land trust’, or the unhelpfully vague term ‘land trust’. Or they just set up a Community Benefit Society without thinking about aligning it to the definition of a CLT.

The legal definition of ‘community land trust’ doesn’t actually mention housing. That was deliberate. It was written as a generic term for an organisation, focused on a local area, democratically controlled by local people, charged with owning and using land for the wellbeing of that community.

The point of the legal definition of ‘community land trust’ was to create a common understanding of what we mean by ‘local community ownership’, and to enable future legislation and policy to connect to it.

So, for example, recent legislation on leasehold has given CLTs unique rights to charge residential ground rents, provide leasehold houses and protect homes against enfranchisement. The latest NPPF creates new ‘community led exception sites’ and encourages community-led development, defined to include CLTs. Over £243m of public money was put on the table for community-led development of housing between 2016 and 2022. All of this came from our network’s campaigning.

In principle, similar campaigning could gain legal and policy recognition for CLTs in policy areas like farming and forestry, biodiversity, and so on. It could create protections and enablers for wider community ownership of land for these purposes.

So should those interested in community ownership of land unite around the CLT term, utilise the model, connect with our network?

There are organisations out there that are CLTs without knowing it. You don’t need ‘CLT’ in the name. Can we connect with them?

And of course, there are other organisations that are similar to CLTs, but don’t fit the legal definition of a CLT. For example, they might operate nationally, owning many bits of land for a single purpose; they might not be democratically owned and controlled by members; or they might be a single farm owned by a community whole only focus is running that farm well. A CLT must focus on the wellbeing of the whole community in a rural or urban area, and be democratic. It’s not to say everything has to be a CLT, and there are many great organisations taking other approaches to governance and ownership, but it’s good to know where the statutory definition draws the lines.

All of this can become mind-numbingly legalistic. Or territorial. There’s a lot of ego in this world!

But I am interested in these questions because I think a more cohesive movement for land reform will have far more impact. We should rally around a few common terms instead of creating confusion. We can share resources, create rich peer networks, and have a collective power with government, industry and others. I have seen this in the impact our network has been able to have on community-led approaches to housing and development.

So I have been very pleased with the research that we commissioned with Shared Assets, examining many of these questions in depth. Shared Assets are one of the leading lights in the world of land reform, with a rich hinterland of research, policy work and consultancy that pioneer and support new approaches to land use.

We touched on the issues of land reform, land commissions and the policy levers for farming/nature in our new manifesto.

I’m hoping the report and manifesto will kickstart a wider discussion about community ownership of land, and the place of the CLT model and network in that. Let me know what you think.

For CLTs, we also asked Shared Assets to draw together a library of resources that you might use if you want to acquire land for food, farming, forestry or nature restoration/rewilding. We will tidy this up into a new subsection of our resources webpage later this year.