Are community land trusts a way out of the system?

People are taking charge of land and housing across the UK, posing an alternative to the commercial market. But is it enough? Hazel Sheffield reports

October 17, 2019 · 7 min read
Football fans stop off at Homebaked bakery near Anfield football stadium on match day. By Mark Loudon

This autumn, builders will start work on Oakfield Road in Anfield. Many houses in this part of Liverpool have remained empty since the government’s failed ‘housing market renewal’ policy shipped people out, then stalled in 2008. Seven years ago, a group of residents formed a community land trust to bring nine terraces on Oakfield Road into community ownership. Now, instead of being demolished, they have been reimagined as cosy, energy-efficient homes, with space for local businesses, winter gardens, a market and a cafe.

In July 2019, the Homebaked Community Land Trust, which shares its name with the successful community-owned bakery on the end of the road, received planning permission for the scheme from Liverpool City Council.

‘Residents who lived and grew up in this area were often left with no choice but to sell and the community risked being forgotten,’ says Angela McKay, a local resident and co-founder of the trust. She knows how important it is for people here to see the houses turned into something modern and beautiful after the destruction wrought by top-down government policies. ‘Now we are rebuilding what still is a vibrant, diverse community with a real desire in reshaping its own future.’

Community land trusts fall within the community-led homes sector. They don’t merely involve locals in planning and building housing but put ownership of land in the hands of the community through a trust, where the value of property can be linked to local income rather than the speculative property market. The sector has grown from 14 such trusts in the UK a decade ago to 311 at the last count.

More than just housing

These numbers can sound small to property developers and policy makers. ‘Completely irrelevant,’ Tim Crabtree, the co-founder of Wessex Community Assets, overheard a housing policy executive saying at a recent housing conference. ‘A pimple on the side of the housing crisis.’

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England is short of four million homes, according to the National Housing Federation. To meet demand with new properties, 340,000 a year must be built every year until 2031. The government’s lower target of 300,000 has been repeatedly missed (in 2018, housing stock in the UK increased by just 222,000 homes). Community land trusts have delivered just 935 homes in England, with another 5,000 at various stages of development.

On the numbers alone, community land trusts cannot hope to solve the systemic problems fuelling the housing crisis. But Crabtree, who has helped create the UK’s largest programme of community land trust housing through his work at Wessex Community Assets, believes these schemes are about far more than housing. ‘We’re not getting across why community-led housing is important,’ he says. ‘If we reduce it to the housing, we lose the fact that it’s about finance, land, ownership and democracy as well.’

He thinks such trusts have five additional benefits linked to land, finance, local economies, partnerships and democracy. By putting land in a trust, community land trusts effectively take it out of the speculative property market. They offer a route out of the present system, in which housebuilders build fewer homes than they could because the price of land in the UK is so volatile that it makes more sense for owners to bank the land and delay housebuilding to achieve the highest possible increase in land value.

Properties on land held by a community land trust are not subject to the same boom-and-bust cycles of the housing market, which has become financialised as a way for banks to create money by selling mortgages.

Crabtree believes that community land trusts better support the local economy, employing traders and using local materials. They foster partnerships with local authorities, whose economic power has been diminished by austerity, and they enhance local democracy by giving residents an active role in shaping where they live. ‘We need local ownership and control – it’s at the heart of community-led housing,’ he says.

For Britt Jurgensen, a resident of Anfield and member of the Homebaked trust, only organisations led by residents can truly cater to the needs of the community and the area. ‘Thinking about the tenants and their future first and before profit is something that is specific to a locally-led organisation,’ she says.

Community land trusts, even more than other forms of community-led housing, often take on roles far beyond the delivery of housing. ‘Homebaked could be a housing co-operative and set up homes for secure housing and lower rents [for its member residents],’ says Tom Chance, the director of the National Community Land Trust Network. ‘But because they are a community land trust and they are looking at the wider area, they have that objective to serve and revitalise the local area and that makes it quite different to other community housing and community businesses.’

Many community land trusts build housing with energy efficiency in mind. In Anfield, the people who took part in redesigning the row of terraces imagined themselves in the flats. ‘They don’t want to live in a place where energy bills are expensive, they want to be comfortable and warm and to do their bit for the environment,’ says Jurgensen. Homebaked has worked with Urbed, a Manchester-based architect, to make the houses 80 per cent more energy efficient than comparable houses in the area.

Broader change

Some see housing as a catalyst for much broader change. In Hastings, a group of organisations is using a community land trust to bring empty buildings into community ownership to tackle dereliction and gentrification at the same time. ‘It’s an issue about control and agency,’ says Jess Steele, who chairs Jericho Road, one of the partner organisations behind the plans. ‘It’s about who has the agency to make changes in neighbourhoods.’

Lower-income groups under threat from gentrification have used community land trusts to establish their basic right to exist within the city. ‘I have children and I wondered what they were going to do when council housing is gone,’ Linda Sanders, the secretary for West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes, which has been fighting the demolition of the Gibbs Green housing estate in inner London for nearly a decade, said in 2016. ‘It seems to me there is a plan to do away with social housing and ship everyone out of London.’

For Tim Crabtree, the success of the model in challenging the housing crisis will depend not on small, rural community land trusts, which dominate the sector, but on groups attempting to acquire land in urban areas, where the crisis is more acute. ‘Having spent a long time developing a model that works in particular areas we’re now facing challenges about how you use housing to transform the wider local economy,’ he says. ‘I’m interested in how we make sure it’s not a niche – it’s supposed to be a movement.’

Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and founder of farnearer.org, a reporting project documenting stories of local economic change. The project has explored more than 50 communities across the UK dealing with the fallout of austerity and Brexit.


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