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There is a lack of democratic control over land and housing – but this can change

To empower communities, we must address the lack of democratic control over land and housing. But how? Alice Martin offers some examples.

By Alice Martin, Subject Lead, Housing and Work, New Economics Foundation

Across the UK, there is a growing movement to create genuinely affordable homes. At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been meeting groups developing models of not-for-profit, community owned housing who are providing hope in the face of a housing system which has reached crisis point.

But those pushing for better housing face multiple challenges, from unlevelled competition for land with private developers, to a lack of awareness amongst local authorities about the economic and social benefits of community owned schemes.

Resident-led groups have limited access to the tools, relationships and economic expertise required to make the case for not-for-profit housing schemes. All the while land is being sold off from beneath them.

It is possible to make an economic case for community-led housing and this is one of areas that NEF is working on improving, but a pound sign cannot easily be attached to social goods such as green spaces and increased health and wellbeing.

“I don’t think local residents are aware that land, owned by us, is being sold off around us. In the North East we have a shortage of homes that are actually affordable for local people and that offer security. Giving land to private developers and hoping for the best surely means we’ll just get more of the same – homes we can’t afford bought up by landlords and rented back to us.” – Newcastle resident

What we need now: the priorities

The last few years have seen the emergence of smart local land strategies to buck the trend of selling land and instead retain more in public ownership, such as Birmingham City Council’s small-sites plan and the Transport for London partnership to develop 400 sites in the capital. The Greater London Authority also has a small-sites scheme launching soon, that will bring together data, development standards and professional support to begin to rebalance the London land market in favour of small and medium-sized builders and community-led schemes.

More councils, public bodies and residents must work towards long-term stewardship of public assets, including land, to ensure the wellbeing of their communities. To achieve this, we might need priorities such as:

  • Creating strong public mandates for better land use, made possible by the government’s commitment to open up and improve Land Registry data.
  • Ensuring that the One Public Estate agenda promotes a joined-up strategy to keep the freehold of more land in public or community ownership, or as a long-term equity stake (which allows residents and their local authorities to ensure that any homes built are designed to meet their needs). This could mean setting up partnerships with community-led housing projects before land is listed as surplus.
  • Promoting restricted-sale tenures on developments on public land that restrict the value at which people can sell their homes when they choose to do so. Such models have been pioneered by community land trusts and are useful for providing below-market home-ownership while ensuring that any discount or subsidy is preserved for future occupiers.

An important development to watch is how newly devolved regions such as Greater Manchester – and areas undergoing significant economic change, such as Margate – make efforts to avoid repeating the effects of social displacement and homelessness that result from highly unequal housing markets. Effective local and regional strategies for public land, as the foundation of long-term equity investment in the wellbeing of those places, should be part of the solution.

Click to explore the Empowered Communities area of our website.