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We Own It – the future of ownership

Mark Walton

The ownership of land and natural resources, and how we make decisions about their use, might look very different by 2030. But how do we make significant change happen inside existing systems? How can we work together to ‘unthink’ land?

On 7th May I spent the day at an event with about 100 other people imagining what public ownership might look like in 2030. The event was ‘Own The Future’ and I was invited join a panel discussion to talk specifically about the future of land ownership.

From the outset we were encouraged by our hosts ‘We Own It’ to think big, long term, and radical. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that by the end of the day we’d developed proposals to end the private ownership of land and create a national ‘common good’ land trust to ensure that land is managed in everyone’s interest.

Heady stuff but, however radical the future of land ownership might be, the issues that we kept returning to were those identified by my colleague Kate in her recent blog on devolution and the environment. These are issues to do with our relationships to the land and each other, and the processes and structures we use to make decisions about how we collectively use and manage our resources. In short: how do we make collective decisions about what we want from land, and how do we collaborate to implement them?

During our afternoon workshop we considered the potential for taking land out of the market entirely, starting with an immediate ban on the sale of public land. But who should own it? We felt that the state, whether local or national, was too likely to be focused on the needs of current citizens rather than future generations or the long term health of the environment. Existing charities like the National Trust were thought to be too focused on conserving their assets rather than ensuring they are used to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits. We agreed instead to establish a ‘Common Good Land Trust’ which would hold the ownership of land. It would be established with charitable objects that would ensure it would have to balance the needs of current and future generations, and of the environment itself, in how land was used and managed. Land belonging to private individuals would pass into the Trust on their death (although not the buildings or other property on the land).

So that was ownership dealt with(easy!), but how then do we enable citizens to make decisions about how land should be used? How do we distribute the ‘goods’ of the land and regulate the ‘bads’? Here we looked to the existing planning system as a potential vehicle or model for making decisions within a ‘nested’ framework, with some being made nationally, others on an area-wide basis and more local decisions through a neighbourhood planning process. We concluded however that we would need new ‘land use classes’, ones that recognised land uses that delivered a range of social benefits such as health, local food and a better quality environment.

These ideas were generated by a small group in a workshop so can’t be promoted as a shared outcome of the event or even the view of Shared Assets, but they generate interesting thinking about what land is for and who owns it.

“The land is owned by everybody” said one participant. Clearly it isn’t, but that is a gut feeling many of us have about the land.

“The land is owned by everybody” said one participant. Clearly it isn’t, but that is a gut feeling many of us have about the land, and we should remember that that the things we take for granted are actually the products of a specific history and culture. Whilst we sat in London dreaming seemingly impossible dreams of shared land ownership, the communities of Nanavut in Alaska were voting in a referendum against allowing the sale of municipal land, upholding their traditions and the principle that land should remain a common good.

Retaining the notion that the current status quo is not necessarily the natural order of things is important in thinking about how we create the ownership and management regimes of the future. The morning’s panel session on the ownership of ‘space’ included discussions on the future of ownership of data and resources such as energy, as well as land. Our discussion focused on how we make change happen when the current system seems so complex, entrenched and interconnected.

I was struck by how technology has resulted in the rapid collapse of old models of business, ownership, value exchange, and even of whole industries, simply by providing an alternative. Perhaps that is what we need to do with land.

At Shared Assets we support the development of new models that operate within the existing system to deliver common good outcomes from land management. If we can keep connecting up, growing, sharing and developing an alternative, perhaps the existing institutions and systems that currently seem so solid will also collapse, revealing the alternative models that we have created within them and that people have chosen over the failures of the old.

The process of ‘unthinking’ our existing relationship to the land and creating a new one won’t be as straightforward as our workshops at ‘Own The Future’, or as this blog, might make it seem. But alternative visions are important, and as we’ll be exploring in our next blog in this series, we need to have a shared sense of what the new system should look like so that we can each be working towards it in our own ways within the existing one.

We look forward to working with We Own It, and with everyone who shares our interest in making land work for everyone, to collaborate in the creation of a 21st century commons, whatever that looks like.

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