Common Grounds - Community Ownership
17-09-2011 | Community ownership? It's not a new concept. A century ago, everything from alms houses to the burgeoning cooperative movement put ownership, responsibility and rewards in the hands of the many. But community ownership is enjoying a resurgence of late, as people across the country pull together to take control of their neighbourhood’s destiny, putting land, power and profits back into the hands of the community.
Building sustainable communities
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. Across the UK, neighbours are delivering diverse benefits for their local communities, from housing and workspace, to energy generation and community food and farming.
"This isn’t just something for people who ideologically believe in saving the environment - it’s genuinely for the community, what ever your beliefs."
Lawrence Guy, The Community Farm, Chew Valley, near Bristol
Community Land Trusts (CLT) are an exciting movement of community owned initiatives that is gaining momentum. CLTs are non-profit organisations, run by volunteers, which develop housing or other assets at permanently affordable levels for long-term community benefit. In the US, where they originated over 40 years ago, there are now more than 250 such communities. Big or small, rural or urban – there's one in New York's Bronx – 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.
In the UK, Scotland in particular has blazed a trail for community ownership. The Community Right to Buy has enabled villages like Comrie in Perthshire to acquire and develop land for local peoples’ uses, and community owned renewables projects - like the ones on the Orkney Island of Westray and Udny in Aberdeenshire - have provided a sustainable long-term income for community initiatives.
Residents of the Sleat Peninsula on the Isle of Skye took ownership of Tormore Forest in July, which it will manage sustainably to provide a vital economic boost to the local area. Buying the forest was an initiative of Sleat Community Trust, which exists to improve the local economy and social amenities. Over 70% of the local community are members of the trust, which actively supports a wide variety of projects. Funding for the 1,000 acre forest came from a range of sources, including Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council and Triodos Bank.
"Our intention is to harvest the timber to provide a sustainable income, so we can move forward and support ourselves, becoming less reliant on funding of all sorts," says SCT’s Angus Robertson. "Now there are only a couple of pathways through the forest so the idea is to harvest the timber so it becomes an amenity area for the local people, opening it up for mountain bikers, dog walkers and horse riders."
In England, the North Devon village of High Bickington is one of the pioneers of this movement, developing the site of a council-owned tenant farm that was deemed surplus to requirements. The development will provide 16 affordable homes and six workshops, a new school and community buildings, as well as sporting and recreational facilities including community-managed woodland.
High Bickington Community Property Trust was formed in 2003, when the council gave it the chance to design a development on the site in line with the community’s needs, rather than working with a private developer to build hundreds of homes that would principally 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 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. "
The Community Farm, in the Chew Valley near Bristol, is an example of a difference model of collective ownership. It was started by Triodos customers Luke Hasell and Jim Twine from The Story Group, and Phil Haughton, founder of The Better Food Company, who shared a vision to reconnect the local community with agriculture. In April a community share issue raised just over £125,000 from 400 founder members, enabling the purchase of the Farm, its veg-box scheme and wholesale operation.
"It’s about people not only investing a little money, but also some of their time and consideration for the project," says Lawrence Guy, wholesale manager at The Community Farm. "A real benefit to being a community organisation is that we really know our customers. For a start, they’re investing in the idea of it, so they want to support these sorts of initiatives. And they’re open to something a little bit different, which is what we’re trying to do.
"This isn’t just something for people who ideologically believe in saving the environment, it’s genuinely for the community, what ever your beliefs. It’s not just about organic, it’s about people coming out here and reconnecting with their food supply is, and hopefully getting something that’s fresher and better for it."
The prototype for the modern-day community land trust was formed in 1969 near Albany, Georgia in the US as a new way to achieve secure access to land for African American farmers.
Measure of success
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 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 date the number of community owned organisations are relatively small, but their potential is huge. There’s no reason why there can’t be thousands across the UK, building and operating all sorts of public facilities, driven not by profit, but the benefit to the community.