Land is at the root of a host of social and economic challenges. As campaigns for a social economy build momentum, how does land fit into the picture?

We believe that the ownership, management and governance of land are fundamental and pressing issues for the UK. Alongside the environmental concerns one might immediately consider to be ‘land based’ issues, we see land at the root of a host of social and economic challenges in our work, be it in energy, food, social cohesion, health or wellbeing. Unfortunately, popular political debate in the UK frequently leaves land out of ideas about the future of our society and economy. Rather than include land as a crosscutting or fundamental issue, it is usually considered as a separate ‘specialist subject’, if it is considered at all.

We therefore welcome the recognition the Social Economy Alliance has paid to land in their ‘Well Founded Growth’ paper, developed as part of their wider ‘social economy manifesto’. The Alliance’s suggestion of a ‘blight tax’ highlights the role of land as a site for the production of other public goods and promotes responsibility of owners to ensure it is used productively. The proposal for a Royal Commission on Land Reform recognises the structural issues underlying debates about land use, and would provide a forum for a much-needed national conversation about the value, ownership, governance and management of land.

The proposals in this paper would go some way to raise awareness of the importance of land as the foundation for a fair and sustainable economy but is largely limited to considerations of land ownership and on land needed for housing development. We would like to see the debate widened further.  We believe that land is a ‘bare necessity’ for the delivery of a variety of other social benefits: the essential base upon which public goods like renewable energy generation, local food growing, education and physical and mental health services can be built. Land is also a very particular type of asset; managing land – be it for energy, food or health – is very different from managing buildings or delivering services. So what can we do about land?

Away From Ownership

We find that many community groups and social enterprises do not wish to assume the responsibilities of asset ownership, or use their limited energy and resources to purchase land for community use. Land often comes with liabilities that are more appropriately retained by the existing landowner, whether public or private. As we saw with the government’s abandoned proposals to sell off the public forest estate, changes in ownership may also be undesirable for both practical and political reasons.

In recent research, we found many woodland social enterprises engaged in informal shared management arrangements with landowners. The focus on ownership misses out opportunities like this. It also risks locking out groups who are willing to engage in stewardship, governance and management, but not ownership.

A ‘Community Right to Manage’ could help overcome this problem. As discussed at POPse! in 2011, such a right could allow communities to propose new management arrangements and use land for social and economic benefit without putting communities under strain, or comprising robust governance. Alternatively, local authorities could adopt a ‘presumption in favour of community management’ for land they own that is currently undermanaged.

Planning and Local Authorities

Local authorities and the planning system play a pivotal role in shaping the UK’s land situation. In local planning, land is regarded simply as ancillary to buildings, protected for leisure or biodiversity, designated as agricultural, or seen as ‘green infrastructure’, often meaning a route for cycling or walking.

As our research into the management of local authority owned woodlands demonstrates, there is rarely good quality information on the land local authorities own and its management is often fragmented across departments. This results in a planning system that gives little consideration to community use of land or productive shared management arrangements. To remedy this, land use classes could be reformed, and local authorities could be guided to support, and required to allow, community-led productive use of their green space.

We feel that these, alongside other proposals we submitted to the Alliance’s consultation, could bring some rarely discussed but important aspects of UK land ownership and use into political debate. Done well, policy could help nurture land based social enterprise to form the bedrock of a well-founded, social economy.

What do you think?

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