Since 2012 Locally Made CIC has been supporting communities wanting to own and control land for their own benefit. We’ve had dozens of meetings and conversations with community groups wanting to build their own housing. We’ve helped housing associations seeking to make better use of their land, by proposing systems for transfer to community groups. We’ve met numerous local authorities interested in community-led development, as the vacuum left by government regeneration projects became apparent. We’ve worked closely with national bodies, such as the Community Land Trust (CLT) Network, as it supports a growing CLT movement. And, we’ve presented at events up and down the country to highlight how, in the depths of austerity and cuts to public spending, the time is right for communities to take ownership of land.
In the course of this work we’ve learned a great deal. As with much practice based learning it can be hard to articulate all this in words, but we believe a few nuggets of insight are worth sharing:
1. The energy for ownership can’t be manufactured from outside
Part of our work has entailed starting with a piece of land first, and seeing if the local community has the will and energy to take it over. Such attempts have had limited success. For community ownership projects to work they must flow from existing tensions, aspirations and relations. These factors will have created a basis for self-direction. The activists in the successful projects we’ve worked with have had some common characteristics; a prodigious work ethic, seen in their willingness to put in hard hours on many mundane tasks; a respect for democratic processes (both representative and participatory); an ability to organise people into such a form that the project grows and gains credibility with those who control resources; and finally, such activists are combative with those who block progress, persuasive with those in doubt, and encouraging with those who are supportive so as to amplify their engagement.
2. Technical advice and support for communities is crucial, but its form must change
The way we support emerging CLTs and other community-led projects is far from perfect. There is a shortage of advisors willing to help on legal and finance issues at zero or low cost. This leaves groups needing to find significant sums at a very early stage to pay for their time. What’s more, many advisors fail to match expert knowledge in their field with basic community development skills. An hour’s worth of consultancy about leases might be useful. But what a group really needs is part-advice and part-education, so that they can learn from the advisor and shape the project on the basis of that learning. When we’ve done this well it’s been clear to see. We’ve taken a perverse delight in watching groups become more knowledgeable on certain issues than we are.
3. Timing and creativity are key
Groups seeking to take ownership of land are swimming against the tide. Market forces limit access to land, bureaucracy and risk aversion make it difficult to get public sector assets, financial institutions are wary of lending to community groups, and the legal system makes it hard to prevent land slipping into private hands once groups own it. The list of barriers goes on and on. To make such projects work, conditions must be right. It’s no surprise that many of the urban CLTs we’ve worked with have flourished in the economic downturn, when private firms and other bodies are not interested in ‘difficult’ sites. But even if your timing is good, you’ll still need to be creative. You must use legislative or policy opportunities (e.g. new rights, procedures or funding regimes). You must be patient and well organised in convincing public sector doubters. And, you must have faith that if you’re creative enough, and never stop looking for a route around a barrier, then you’ll find the solution (as some of the groups we’ve worked with exemplify).
4. Resources must follow new rights
In times of austerity it’s easy to develop policies that create a sense of liberation, but then fail to provide the resources that enable people to use that freedom. If the government truly wants community groups to build more housing and other facilities, then it must match rights with resources and incentives. The ‘right to reclaim land’ is a perfect example of this. On close inspection it’s a mirage of a policy, there’s nothing really there. What is required by groups is; technical support to deal with legal, financial, planning and other issues; capital grants or very low interest loans for development (i.e. less than 4%); rights and powers that force public bodies to dispose of their assets at well below their market value; and, reforms to the legal system that prevent the loss of community-owned assets into the private market.
5. The market has failed
After all this learning, and much of it’s about how to overcome the significant barriers faced, it’s still clear that we need these groups to act. The housing market has failed, it’s dysfunctional and no longer meets our society’s needs. Household formation is outstripping the supply of housing at such a pace, that if we don’t change that supply, we’re in for some real pain. This pain won’t be felt by people who already own houses, but those excluded from the market. Community-led development is one way to abandon speculative housing development, to try a different way of building and providing housing that’s not built on the logics of the market.
Critics may argue that community-led housing can’t even scratch the surface of this problem. And they’re right, from the current stand point. But then, as one of history’s great activists once said, ‘whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it’. These community-led developments are important because without radical experiments we will find no radical solutions, and without radical solutions we’ll have nothing more than a continuation of the status quo.