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April 27, 2010

Where supply and demand can meet

The exponential growth in the numbers of people who want to grow their own food has highlighted a serious shortage of available land.  How to increase the supply of land?  Find a way to convince those who have land (but don’t have a use for it) to let those who don’t have land (but do have a use for it) to bring their land into productive use.  LPL supporter, Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens are making good progres

Community Land Bank Consultation
Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens

Community gardening and interest in food growing in the UK is growing and land demand for this purpose is exceeding supply: allotment waiting lists with local authorities are in many places at record highs, and in other places groups are negotiating individual deals for land with a variety of landlords. Waiting lists nationally for allotments are reported to be in the region of 100,000 with a ten year wait for a plot in Poole and a seven year wait in Edinburgh.

Community-managed gardens and farms make a major contribution to the quality of life locally in relation to a broad range of social and environmental objectives. Green space, bio-diversity, exercise, community cohesion, mental health, education, the welfare of older people and carbon reduction all have resonances within community gardening activities.

The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) has commissioned this research  to examine whether a Community Land Bank (CLB) could be established as a social enterprise to address the burgeoning demand for access to space for local food growing and for the development and furtherance of community gardening generally. The proposition is that a Community Land Bank would be situated in the “non-statutory” and community sector.  This involves land not protected by the Allotment Acts and would involve gardening under a very different set of rules than those applying to local authority allotments. 

The strategic objective for a CLB would be a net increase in the land available for gardening and a contribution to addressing increased demand.  The assumption is that there is a potential supply in the form of land under the management of a variety of landowners (some of which may be awaiting development in some form) which could be made available for gardening until it is time for it to go forward for its designated use. From FCFCG’s consultation with a range of expert bodies, the indicative objectives identified for a CLB are:

• To act as a formal brokerage between land-holders and community groups
• To hold land in trust if appropriate
• To offer objective advice to landowners and tenants over purchase, sale or lease of land, and suitable legal structures for community ownership
• To offer (for leased sites) security to landowners and tenants over length of tenancies and return of land in good condition at the end of the lease period
• Potentially to reduce tenure costs as a consequence of scale, standardised agreements, etc, and to secure a central fund/endowment from which costs might be covered
• To offer case studies to reassure prospective landowners, as a model for their own negotiations
• To offer some protection to community land – as community farms and gardens have no protection compared to local nature reserves or statutory allotments.
• Potentially to offer umbrella liability insurance for small groups to help them become established and cover their legal responsibilities.

The research included interviews with a diverse range of organisations including bodies supporting community gardening groups and those that might provide land on a temporary or longer term basis. Strong interest in the CLB proposition was obtained from public and voluntary sector organisations. Concern was expressed about the lack of security of tenure but, on the other hand, the potential innovation that a CLB could provide was appreciated. Key findings from the interviews are as follows:
1. Demand for space to grow food and for gardening generally exceeds supply by a considerable margin, but this is hard to quantify. 
2. The source of the demand is diverse, socially, economically, ethnically and demographically.
3. Whether demand will be sustained, or grow, is more difficult to predict as past experience indicates periodic fluctuations.
4. The economic situation, and the likelihood of high unemployment over the next several years, may also be factors tending to push demand up as it has in the past.
5. An ageing population, especially if pensions fail to recover from the financial crisis, is likely to be attracted to community gardening.
6. Suppliers of land would require the comfort of knowing that the land was well-managed at the local level as well as centrally. 
7. Some interviewees indicated that they may be able to contribute a site; anecdotally, schools, the NHS, some local authorities, some Registered Social Landlords, some farmers in the Green Belt, some garden centres and potentially Network Rail and the Co-operative Group would appear likely to take a positive stance and are indicative of the types of organisation that both have land and would have an interest in an intermediary management body like a Community Land Bank. 
8. Corporate sector landlords were reluctant to be interviewed so it was not possible to gauge their views in this study.
9. Public sector suppliers of land and social landlords are likely to stipulate that its use, in part at least, support the organisation’s objectives (for example, health or education or community cohesion) and would be unlikely to release land, even temporarily, for purely private use.
10. There was a firm consensus that a Community Land Bank would have a useful role in mediating between the suppliers and users of meanwhile land, and that an organisation capable of ensuring that robust leases were available and that management issues would be dealt with would facilitate the release of land. 
11. Affordability is an issue as it is unlikely that revenue streams from the gardening community will be sufficient to cover all or most of the operational costs.  On the other hand, where gardening activity has the effect of improving the site and preserving or enhancing its value, it is fair to assume that the landowner should at the very least cover the cost of the overhead.
12. To be successful and operationally viable, a CLB will need to develop partnerships with other agencies in order to secure funding and/or land through a contribution, albeit indirect, to the delivery of other services or ecological, environmental, community and social benefits.
13. There is significant interest and support for a Community Land Bank as an agency to support access to unused land for meanwhile gardening, both from potential providers of land and other resources and from prospective users.
14. The idea of meanwhile gardening as a form of access to land would be broadly welcomed, so long as it is not perceived as a substitute for optimising access to land on a more permanent basis.
15. There appear to be three types of land that could be secured and managed by a CLB: short-life, temporary uses of land that could be used for learner sites; somewhat longer, medium term sites from public sector sources (like the NHS); and possibly long-term sites by bodies seeking a manager for unused land (like Sustrans).

A feasibility study and business plan is recommended to develop the CLB concept in more detail in relation to legal structure and governance and its initial staffing and operational systems. Such a study would need to be conducted in relation to specific sites that could be considered for commencing operations from mid 2010.

Thus far, this work has been funded by Westminster Government and as such applies to England. A meeting is being held in Edinburgh, 17th June at Manor Place to discuss the potential for a Scottish CLB. Contact if you are interested.