Recommendations put forward in the Labour-commissioned ‘Land for the Many’ report would give communities real power.
One pub closes every 12 hours. The UK has lost two-thirds of its banks in the past 30 years, one in five post offices could shut down by 2021. 300,000 new homes are needed each year until the mid-2020s. And since 2014 more than 12,000 public spaces have been sold or transferred from council ownership.
There’s a common underlying cause: land prices have risen 544% since 1995.
Thousands of community groups have formed to do something about this, running services like libraries and youth centres, but now also taking land out of the market and back into common ownership.
But many are then coming up against bureaucratic brick walls and sinkholes. They are too often being failed by government as much as the market. Policy lets landowners neglect land to the detriment of local communities; let’s speculators send land values sky high; and sometimes prevents communities from playing a part, in the mistaken belief that either the market or government knows best.
A new report, Land for the Many, argues for changes to how land is used and controlled for the benefit of all. The authors recognised the need for communities to be ‘at the heart of development’. They draw particular attention to community land trusts (CLTs) and how the approach ‘could do much more to expand community land ownership’.
CLTs are local organisations set up by ordinary people to hold land and other assets for the wellbeing of the community. To date, the 300+ CLTs in England and Wales have mostly focused on the building and refurbishing housing that is affordable in perpetuity. Between them, they’ve built 935 homes and have plans for over 5,000 in the next few years.
The movement’s recent boom has been in part thanks to the government’s £300m Community Housing Fund which was announced in 2016. But elections, Brexit and the ongoing uncertainty around the Spending Review have created a cycle of short-term funding cycles that make it difficult to build up nascent organisations for complex projects; the current phase opened for bids last July, and closes 18 months later, this December.
Research by the National CLT Network shows that at least 3,500 community led homes may never get built because of the Fund’s curtailed timeframe.
Long-term funding and concrete policy changes are needed if communities in England are to develop into a viable sector, on a par with Scotland where the equivalent of CLTs own 100 times as much land.
Proposals put forward in Land for the Many which support the expansion of the community land trust movement include:
- Creating a Community Land Fund with a target of bringing £200m of land into community ownership by 2030.
- Replacing the Community Right to Bid with a Community Right to Buy which gives community groups first refusal on land.
- Developing a planning system that is ‘public interest-led’ by giving councils and Public Development Corporations more power and the resources to partner with communities.
The wider programme to reform the planning system, taxation, transparency and more would also be of great benefit to communities.
If these proposals like this were policy, communities would have the power to take land out of the market and protect it for public benefit.
Take a CLT in the south east, which has been ordered to leave a 40-year derelict industrial site which it had been granted meanwhile use of because landowners have now decided to sell to the highest bidder. They could use the Community Right to Bid to see its plans for over 50 homes that local people can afford realised.
The longstanding Wyre CLT or the newly formed Middle Marches CLT could access funding through the Community Land Fund to invest in their work to protect and conserve farmland and forests.
And for South Bank CLT in Middlesbrough, the Compulsory Sale Orders might be embraced to tackle absentee landlordism. In common with many deprived cities, large numbers of homes have been bought by buy-to-let investors with no connection to the idea, who leave the management to neglectful letting agents. As a result, once vibrant communities decline with a high turnover of tenants, little maintenance and care for the homes, and growing problems of antisocial behaviour. The CLT is trying to buy back properties so they can look after them, and the streets, but what if their council could force the sale of homes causing a real nuisance to the area?
There is clearly cross-party support for CLTs. A third of councils in England are supporting community led development and this is likely to increase thanks to new programmes like Future for London’s Foundations for Community Led Housing which brings officers and the public together.
If the ambition of the Land for the Many report could be translated into national government policy, that would unleash a wave of innovation across England, Wales and Northern Ireland to match the community ownership movement in Scotland.
The CLT wave is growing. Soon we may see how the land lies.
Tom Chance is Director of the National Community Land Trust Network.
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