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Why we need experiments in land use

Tom Kenny

Following our team away day at Letchworth Garden City, Tom blogs about why we need to make it easier for people to experiment with new ways of using land.

A few weeks ago the Shared Assets team visited the ‘Alternative Letchworth’ exhibition and learned about the radical history of the first Garden City. The whole exhibition was inspiring, but I was particularly taken by one of the books they had on display at the end.

The book in question was ‘The New Jerusalem: The good city and the good society’ by Ken Worpole, which explores late 19th Century social movements, including Garden Cities. As I read the introduction I was particularly struck by a passage about the promotion of new land settlements and ‘experiments in living’ as a way to advance society. It helped me crystallize something I had been ruminating about for a while:

Are experiments in new ways of using land the key to making land work?

I think that rather than searching for ideal models, it is actually experimentation in sustainable land use might be the most important solution to the current problems facing land in the UK. Now let me tell you why.

Finding Solutions in Experimentation

I first became seriously interested in land use when I lived on a farming community in Ecuador. I relished the opportunity to experience a different way of living. The community had its problems, but it was full of new ideas and creativity. People were constantly trying new ways of managing both land and community. They had taken barren land and begun to turn it into a haven for nature and a functioning farm. It was inspiring and I found it strange that I had to travel halfway across the world to experience it.  

Since returning to the UK I’ve found many projects in the UK pursuing their own experiments in new ways of managing land. But they face an incredibly challenging environment. Mainstream models of land management are in trouble. We’re seeing:

  • workforce shortages that are acknowledged by government and industry as an existential threat
  • rapidly declining natural capital, with soil in particular crisis
  • a decline in the diversity of farm sizes
  • a lack of sustainable business models, and a heavy dependence on subsidy

More than ever we need experiments in what alternatives are possible.

Experimentation in land use is stifled

We need experiments in new ways of managing land. Moreover there are many enterprising individuals who have great ideas and would love to put them into action. However there is very little investment or policy support available to help put these ideas into action. Nascent experiments are often written off as impractical or unviable.

There is a popular narrative in tech entrepreneurial circles that failure is a necessary part of the journey. If you aren’t failing you aren’t pushing the boundaries. However this doesn’t seem to translate to innovations in land use. When it comes to land use the narrative is generally that the only ‘viable’ option is the accelerating march towards large scale industrial land management. New small-scale approaches are not worth supporting as they don’t fit in this economies of scale, profit maximising model.

Experiments in land use are prohibited in a number of ways. For example:

  • Access to land – land ownership is extremely concentrated and when land comes on the market it is often priced out of the range of new entrants
  • Access to finance – securing finance is especially difficult when profits are not the main driver
  • Planning – the planning system is often opposed to new kinds of land use, or fails to recognise the need for the developments they propose
  • ‘Viability’ – many financial and planning decisions are premised on the perceived viability of the project. This makes it difficult to propose new approaches, with untested business models.
  • Skills and Training: There is a lack of suitable training opportunities for new entrants to collect the skills they needed to pursue their own projects

Thus while there are some amazing projects out there, there are not nearly as many as we need. When you read about innovative land-based projects in the UK, the same case studies tend to pop up again and again. Rather than seeing a wide range of experiments we tend to see a large number of early ideas, but relatively few that are able to realise their visions.

To secure truly resilient local economies we need many different approaches. If land is managed in a diverse range of ways then there is a greater chance that at least some of them will prove resistant to shocks. Then we can learn from both the successful projects and the failures, to create the models we need.

Our vision

Early on Shared Assets talked about pursuing ‘21st Century Commons’. More recently we’ve been talking about ‘Common Good Land Use’. Both of these are useful framings for new ways of managing land that work for everyone. But they don’t really cover the process of how we get there.

Increasingly I see experimentation as perhaps the core value we need to support in land use. It is only by trying, and failing, and succeeding, and learning, that we will be able to overcome the current crisis in land management. And create the vision of land that we all want.

How can we reinvigorate experimentation in land use?

We need to respond to the current crisis of land management by finding, publicising, and learning from experiments in managing land. And making it far easier for new experiments to take place. This means:

  • Funding for experiments in new models of land use. This shouldn’t be premised on limited conceptions of viability. It should be based on an understanding that failure is possible, and we may even need failures to teach us which paths are most fruitful. The government regularly invests tens of millions into funding new ‘innovation’ programmes and institutes. Why not have a fund for new models of land use?
  • Easier temporary or conditional planning permissions for innovative projects. The planning system needs to protect landscapes. However this should not be at the expense of trying new things. It should be far easier for non-traditional projects to get the permissions they need, where they can make a strong case that their success (or failure) will teach us something about local resilience and sustainable living. This might mean something like One Planet Development (OPD) in Wales.
  • Identification of suitable land for projects. The government (and anyone else with influence over land management) should look for land that could be used for experiments. This might mean making public land like community farms available. It might mean offering incentives to landowners who invite new entrants on to their land.
  • Coordinated and funded research into what works. Too often it is left to individual projects to record their outcomes. This ends up representing a huge drain on their resources, thus challenging their ability to run successful projects. Moreover should we really expect good learning to come from outcome measurement designed to meet funder requirements?

The desire for experimentation and new ideas that led to Letchworth is just as important today. Shared Assets will continue to foster such experimentation. Not only by supporting projects that are trying new things, but also by creating an environment that supports and rewards experimentation. And even celebrates failure, where it teaches us something about common good land use.

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