In which Kate ponders the systemic levers we might be able to pull on to make the UK’s land system work better for everyone.

Here at Shared Assets, we often talk about the “land system”. We want to see a world where land is used for the common good, but the current way our land system works often militates against that. This includes the way land use is funded and taxed, how it is owned and acquired, and how easy or difficult it is to run sustainable land-based businesses that enhance society and the environment. It’s interesting to think about what lessons we can apply to the land system from the wide body of systems thinking theory – and what some of that theory might have to say about some of the current available options for intervening in our land system.

I was at an exploratory meeting last week to discuss the potential for various NGOs to come together around campaigning for some form of Land Value Capture (LVC). There are a number of different ways of thinking about LVC, all of which try to return some of the profit that a developer or landowner makes from owning or developing land to society in some way. These range from strengthening or enhancing existing tools that require contributions from developers to mitigate the impact of their developments, like section 106 agreements, to reforming the way local authorities and the government can acquire land for affordable housing, to directly taxing the wealth that landowners hold in land.

Image: John Cameron

All of these methods are in some way trying to recognise that land increases in value because society – often but not always the state – builds infrastructure or acts to make an area more desirable. Landowners benefit from this “unearned” increase in value. Something needs to change in the system, and it might be that any of these, or a combination of them, would go some way towards rebalancing the system in favour of the broader community. We feel that the system should also recognise that responsibilities should sit alongside rights when owning land – something that has been a key principle in Scottish land reform.  It’s really encouraging to see the burgeoning interest in better capturing the value of land, from the Communities & Local Government Select Committee investigation into LVC methods to the Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to examine the potential for a Land Value Tax. The Scottish Land Commission is currently investigating LVC. Even Tony Blair is supportive of the idea, joining Winston Churchill in the ranks of LVC-supporting ex-PMs.

However, what this has all got me really thinking about is the system part of the phrase “land system”. The way we own, manage, tax, fund and value land – a key non-renewable resource – really is one of the most complex systems in the country (indeed, the world, given our impact on the environments and economies of other countries through pollution, exporting of waste, and importing of food, not to mention the historic imposition of our land ownership system through colonialism). The massively ambitious government 2010 Land Use Future Foresight project created a lot of valuable resources including some bogglingly complex systems maps showing the extent of the land system, and all the areas of government and society it impacts. No wonder it was quietly shelved. Which of these tangled threads should we pull on, and what extra knots will it create?

A map of the component parts of the land system

Systems thinking has some interesting insights here, particularly Dana Meadows’ useful concept of finding the leverage points, or places to intervene, in a system. Mechanisms for capturing land value are surely one of the key leverage points we (or the government) has, but what kind of leverage are they? She outlines 12 potential places to intervene in a system, in increasing order of effectiveness:

System Leverage Points

There is a lot here to unpack, (and this article by Dana Meadows herself does it far better than I could), but it feels to me that our work at Shared Assets needs  to be focussed towards the end of this list. To come back again and again to the question of what our land is for, what its purpose is in our society. Much of the conversation around Land Value Capture is about how to increase the stock of affordable housing, which is a vital question, and we need people to be innovating, testing and promoting the different models. At best, though, these interventions would fall into number 5 in the list above.

We believe that land is a common good and should be managed in ways that benefit everyone. That’s a big paradigm shift from the current land system which sees land as either a public or a private good, and focuses on the rights of landowners and of ownership. It’s a shift that raises questions about how we want to live on the resources that we have. It requires thinking about governance, about resource allocation, about what a “good life” means in our society. What is it we really value about land? This can feel – because it is – complex and hard to pin down, simultaneously sticky and slippery. I was particularly inspired and encouraged this week by the Lankelly Chase Foundation’s way of explaining how they work with complexity and complex systems. Their approach of adopting action inquiry as a methodology for exploring how to create healthy systems really resonates with our approach: I’ve lost count of the times one of us has said “we don’t have all the answers*; we don’t even know all the questions yet”.

So we will keep enquiring and questioning while working alongside people creating a better land system at all levels – community farmers, social enterprise foresters, campaigners, activists and researchers. What are the systems questions we should be asking about the future of land?

(*although I do still think one answer is solarpunk!)

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