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Land: the missing piece of the puzzle

Carys Roberts

Land sits at the heart of our economic, social and ecological systems yet this is too often ignored or not understood. Our new Head of Research, Carys Roberts, looks at the opportunity for change, and the questions Shared Assets will be asking to achieve that.

Many of the knottiest modern day problems we face require an understanding of the role played by land. The IPCC has said we must take ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ in the next decade if we are to stem catastrophic climate change, calling into question how much we produce and consume, and how we use resources. Over half of the world’s population now live in cities, and that figure is projected to rise to two-thirds, putting pressure on the sustainability of our cities and the land and natural systems they rely on. In the UK, the price of housing has risen four times faster than earnings in the last two decades, locking millions out of the security of their own homes and contributing to huge disparities of wealth between those at the top and the rest: the wealth held by landowners increased by £450bn between 2016 and 2017. And as the UK prepares to leave the EU, and soil degradation heralds a new era in which the UK only has 30-40 years of soil fertility left, food security and our ability to produce food has once again become critically important.

Land is the missing piece of the puzzle in many of the most challenging problems we face. But too often, questions of who owns, stewards and benefits from land, are obscured from public discourse and decision making. In economic models and policy design, land is often treated like any other type of capital, despite the fact it’s fixed, not reproducible, and that there are strong arguments that all humans (and other living things) have a claim of some sort on the land. This in turn stems partly from a lack of knowledge of our own history, and how arrangements over access, rights, governance and ownership of land have radically varied in different parts of the globe and at different times. Lack of understanding blinds us to the fact that our current arrangements are constructed, and can be changed.

Land is the missing piece of the puzzle in many of the most challenging problems we face. But too often, questions of who owns, stewards and benefits from land, are obscured from public discourse and decision making.

Change is necessary if we are to live prosperously and within safe ecological limits. And despite  the difficulty of addressing the issues above, I believe that the current political and societal climate mean that change is increasingly within reach. Activists, researchers and institutions around the globe are experimenting with new ways of organising the economy to provide sustainable livelihoods and cohesive communities. Politically, the status quo has been thrown into the air, as voters in the UK – as well as elsewhere – have rejected the economic consensus of the past four decades. While the cry to ‘take back control’ could have – and has had – unpredictable and dangerous consequences, it is also challenging accepted truths about how we organise collective resources and for whose benefit. The space has opened up to question why things are as they are. The opportunity must be taken to construct new models for a better, shared future.

As politicians and activists look for models of ownership, rights and governance that sit between the privatised, financialised model, and unaccountable state-run bureaucracies, the new models emerging from the land movement are at once part of and examples to wider economic systems change. Land and community wealth have risen up the agenda, both in terms of growing activism and campaigning success. Scottish land reforms have altered the institutional arrangement of land rights and cut-through political noise. A new policy consensus is emerging among politicians of all parties on the need for the public to recoup the value of land it invests in, and on mechanisms for land value capture.  From Community Land Trusts to cooperative urban food growing, this is economic systems change in action.

How can land be used in ways that gives communities democratic control, while meeting the economic, social and environmental needs of wider communities – including the national and the global?

Shared Assets sits between these different actors. We advise land owners, including the public sector, on how to use and steward land for the benefit of communities, as experts on models for sustainable management.  In my role, I’ll be working to place common good land use at the top of national and local agendas. I’m looking forward to researching how land can be used in ways that gives communities democratic control, while meeting the economic, social and environmental needs of wider communities – including the national and the global. How can policymakers – regional, national and international – enable this vision? What questions should we be interrogating to ensure those goals are met, and where they conflict, are balanced appropriately? What innovative ways can we use to reassert land as a fundamental unit of the economic process, and advocate for it to be used for shared benefit?

Too often these questions are secondary to short-term political pressures and considerations. I’m hoping that together with our partners we can place them centre-stage.

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