Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Community Land Trust, or A Nice Way of Turning Farmland into Housing?

There was me thinking that Community Land Trusts sounded like a lovely, quite radical but at the same time innocent and fluffy alternative sort of idea that could give ordinary folk a stake in society. Oh so naive.

Reading on Philip Booth's blog the sad news about ongoing County Farm sell-offs again being mooted in Gloucestershire, I went to look at the Community Land Trust website and was straightaway drawn to the case studies page and the example of High Bickington in North Devon. Intrigued, I moved on to visit their very well presented website to find out more about what’s been going on.

Turns out that the land they’re looking at is, or was, a County Farm. County Farms are part of our heritage which should be celebrated. They are, or were, a wonderful part of the post-war settlement, a legacy of egalitarianism and ‘fairness for all’ thinking that sprang up so optimistically after the mass slaughter and sacrifice of the Great War, when some villages and rural areas had nearly all their young men stolen away.

The Wiltshire County Council website tells us that:

"Wiltshire’s County Farms Estate was developed following the enactment of the Smallholdings and Allotments Acts of 1907 and 1908. Under these Acts, all Councils were placed under a statutory duty to meet the demand for applications by young persons to enter into farming …"

"After the First World War, the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 encouraged Councils to expand their estates to accommodate, in particular, the settlement on the land of the returning ex-servicemen who had to be given preference over all other applicants. Applications increased and consequently the estate grew to 4,499 hectares (11,119 acres) by January 1923 and to 6,879 hectares (17,000 acres) with 650 tenants by Lady Day 1926. A greater proportion of these were now equipped 'full time' 15 ha to 20 ha (40-50 acre) holdings as opposed to the pre War 'part time bare land' holdings mentioned above."

County Farms provide, or provided, one of the vital but now vanishingly few remaining ways for youngsters who aren’t either wealthy, or born into a farming family, with a way of actually starting out in farming. They are a much-needed way of bringing new blood and fresh ideas onto the land, as well as broadening opportunities for young people. But sadly, as East Anglia Food Link observes:

"County Farms estates have lost their way over time, consolidating smallholdings into much larger holdings and letting them for the best available price, simply as a way of earning income for the local authority. It is now time to rediscover the original purpose of County Farms, which is to provide land access for small-scale commercial growing. Smallholdings of 3-10 acres, and even dachas of one acre each, should be the norm."

Conveniently dismissed as "redundant" or "surplus to requirements", Little Bickington Farm will be permanently lost to food production, as the High Bickington Community Property Trust (CPT) was initially granted outline planning permission by Torridge DC. Because the CPT want to build over the farmland, and this would be a ‘Major Departure from the Local Development Plan’, the decision was referred to GOSW, and eventually to a Local Public Inquiry in January 2006. The Inspector recommended refusal, and he was backed by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly in May 2006.

Nevertheless, a new application for full planning permission was submitted in 2008 and given the go-ahead by the District Council in January 2009.

Of around 800 people in the village, some 200 have chosen to become members of the CPT, and the Board of Directors consists of 9 individuals, 7 of whom include:

“Former Chief Executive of not-for-profit Company providing residential and other care services to around 5,000 people. Employed c. 2,000 staff.”

“… previously worked in London in the advertising industry.”

“Retired teacher and HM Inspector of Schools.”

“A background of over 20 years experience, as a manager and international management consultant, in the financial services industry. Since 1990 extensively involved in privatisation, share ownership schemes and enterprise reform in emerging economies, working as a specialist adviser and project manager on World Bank and other international funding agency programmes.”

“a background of 30 years in production and quality in the generic pharmaceutical industry with responsibility for operations at several sites in Europe. Achievements included the lowest cost, highest volume tablet plant in Europe, the introduction of total quality philosophy and of real team working.”

“Took early retirement from the NHS following a successful 20 year career in Public Health. Has recently been working across Northern Devon with the North Devon and Exmoor Regeneration Company.”

“…a career of 42 years with the UK Division of HERTZ. Spent the last 17 years as Fleet Purchasing Manager and during that period was responsible for purchasing over 500,000 vehicles.”

No housing developers or planning consultants?

A prestigious group indeed, villages ain't what they used to be. But are the villagers above in the least representative or typical of modern Britain do you think? Could just any community of 800 people in, say, Teesside, Birmingham or Plymouth rustle up such a pool of managerial talent?

It is telling also that an idea like Community Land Trusts can, in the right hands, be so very useful for turning farmland into housing.

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