Can community ownership combat cuts?

Sensemaking / Can community ownership combat cuts?

Reduced commuting, locally generated energy, varied housing tenures – Community Land Trusts could bring a host of benefits to the UK.

25 Aug 2011

Reduced commuting, locally generated energy, varied housing tenures – Community Land Trusts could bring a host of benefits to the UK.

Community ownership? It’s not a new concept. A century ago, everything from alms houses to the burgeoning cooperative movement in Britain put ownership, responsibility and rewards in the hands of the many. More recently, Scotland has blazed a trail. Its ‘Community Right To Buy’ means villages like Comrie in Perthshire can acquire and develop land for the use of local peoples, and renewables projects – like the one on Westray in the Orkney Islands – can bring sustainable long-term incomes to local initiatives.

England, arguably, has been lagging behind. But here, too, an exciting movement is gathering momentum. Community Land Trusts (CLT) are non-profit organisations, run by volunteers, which develop housing or other assets at permanently affordable levels for long-term community benefit.

CLTs are tried and tested. In the US, where they originated over 40 years ago, there are now more than 250 such communities. They are taking charge of their own destiny by creating companies to develop and manage assets, which will in turn generate income for future generations. Big or small, rural or urban – there’s one in New York’s Bronx – they provide a variety of housing tenures as well as workspaces, energy generation, community food and farming.

In the North Devon village of High Bickington, meanwhile, one of the UK pioneers of this movement is developing the site of a council-owned tenant farm that was deemed surplus to requirements. The first phase will provide 16 affordable homes and six workshops, funded by the sale of 18 homes on the open market. Later phases include a new school and community buildings, and sporting and recreational facilities. There’s also community-managed woodland, with some 3,000 broadleaf trees planted this spring.

High Bickington Community Property Trust was originally formed in 2003, when the council gave it the chance to design a development on the site in line with the community’s needs. This was a shift away from the conventional approach of working with a private developer to build hundreds of homes that would appeal to North Devon’s second home and commuter market. As David Brown, the Trust’s chairman, says: “We wanted to make the village more sustainable by tackling a whole set of issues through a holistic approach.”

It has taken time and perseverance from the Trust to get this far, including submitting revised plans after the initial planning application was turned down. “At times it felt like the Government was against us,” says Brown, “but there has been a change in climate. We illustrate what can be done.

“We need Government to recognise the value of community involvement”

We need Government to be more able to recognise the value of community involvement; we need to be much more able to look at finance and to get the right packages together. It’s a two way process. It’s not just about what the banks require, it’s about the communities recognising what’s needed to be able to achieve financial backing.”

If the success of commercial businesses is measured on their return to shareholders, then community-owned enterprises must be judged on the results they deliver to the community they serve. The wider benefits can range from reduced commuting, to locally generated renewable energy and the retention of investment in the local area. And for some residents, the impact is life-changing, enabling them to live and work in the place they call home. “It will mean a lot to me to stay in High Bickington, because both my partner and I have grown up here,” says Becky Hale. “And to be able to bring up my daughter Chloe in such a nice community will just mean the world to us.”

To deliver a more sustainable society, we need a transition to ownership structures that value more than just profit maximisation. At a time of austerity, when the public sector doesn’t have funds to invest, community ownership offers one immediate alternative for infrastructure development. To date there are only 13 registered CLTs in England, but their potential is huge. There’s no reason why there can’t be 13,000, building and operating all sorts of public facilities, driven not by profit, but the benefit to the community.

Bevis Watts is Head of Business Banking at Triodos Bank.

Triodos Bank is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo credit: Kodachrome25 / istock

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