WORKING TOWARDS A PEOPLE’S LAND POLICY
Land reform from the ground up
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
Aldo Leopold: Sand Country Almanac
Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?
‘Land’ is all the earth’s resources: the physical surface of the earth, both land and water, urban and rural, what lies beneath, and the atmosphere above. For centuries, the use and benefits of land have profited a minority while displacing the majority – physically, economically, socially, politically and culturally. Fundamental changes to the system of land ownership are needed to ensure that land is managed and used for the benefit of all, including future generations and other species.
This will require us to view land differently, no longer as someone’s exclusive private property. Even when land is officially in public hands, our voices about how the land should be used and managed cannot be heard above the property developers and speculators, large mining and forestry interests, and others who see land as a source of profit. The planning system gives unequal weight to the views of developers and local communities do not often have the time or money to challenge them effectively.
Our alternative vision sees land as a ‘Commons’. This means that land is a common inheritance, a gift of nature that belongs to us all. Together we act as stewards or caretakers of this land so that it can sustain us both now and in the future. The Commons is a social process, a community of people who work together within democratic and fully participatory structures to manage the sustainable production and equitable distribution of the land’s wealth.
Land Reform from the Ground Up
The People’s Land Policy is a project to develop discussion and debate about what kind of land reform we need. By bringing together a range of people to discuss land and the issues that affect them we hope to contribute to the building of a broad-based, radical movement for land reform.
Vision for a People’s Land Policy
How do we transform land into a Commons? What needs to change? What are our aims?
The project of developing a People’s Land Policy has emerged from the work of the Land Justice Network whose Common Ground Statement forms our starting point.
Land is an essential resource that our society, culture and economy depend upon. It is the main uniting factor underpinning most of our struggles for social and environmental justice, whether for genuinely affordable housing or food growing, for preserving nature or community space. Land can be an emotional subject and many can feel excluded from debates about how to reform an unjust system. We must ensure that this is an inclusive movement where all voices are valued. The purpose of building Our Common Ground is to establish a shared set of aspirations for our diverse and inclusive modern land reform movement. The routes that we take towards our shared goals should be many and varied allowing us to explore the huge variety of ways we can achieve positive change.
Aim One: Land is a complete ecosystem. Decisions about land should be made holistically and take into consideration the complex relationships between social and natural processes.
Land reform policies should:
- bring together a range of diverse and vital issues, which include: housing, food and agriculture, community and cultural assets, recreation and the environment
- recognise these different interests in land-use, accepting that there may at times be a conflict of views on how land should be used, but aiming for cooperation in decision-making.
- aim for a good quality of life for all, so an integrated policy must treat everyone equitably and allow for a fair distribution of the land’s wealth.
- incorporate environmental concerns, such as climate change and pollution, and ensure the survival of the planet for future generations.
1. What kind of structures are required to ensure that decisions about land use are made holistically, equitably, with the environment and future generations in mind?
2. How does the planning system need to change?
3. What is the role of the market for making
decisions about land?
Aim Two: Land should be considered as a Commons, a source of wealth that belongs to all of us and should be protected and managed on the principle of stewardship.
Land is currently divided up between various owners including private individuals, corporations, institutions and government. The idea of owning land is very different from the concept of the Commons. In the first, the owner can fence off a piece of land both physically and metaphorically; their rights to do what they want are absolute and exclusive and land is managed for private gain. Owners reap many benefits from their ownership as well as have a large degree of power to make decisions about what the land is used for and who has access to the land, with only limited restrictions via the planning system. In the Commons, though an individual may occupy or seem to ‘own’ a piece of land, they act as stewards. Stewardship takes a long-term view, which considers the impact of land use and management on others, including future generations and the environment.
In order to achieve the aim of transforming land into a Commons, where use will be subject to democratic control and contribute to the well-being of all, it will be necessary to make a number of changes to the current system.
A. Reduce the concentration of ownership and increase public, community and co-operative forms of ownership
The system of land ownership should facilitate and reinforce the aim of fairly distributing the benefits of land. The current unequal distribution of land, with ownership concentrated in the hands of a small minority, is incompatible with this aim. Policies need to be adopted that will provide mechanisms to maximise the amount of land that is owned by ‘the public’ in some form, whether that be the government, local communities, communities of interest or co-operatives.
B. Ensure more equitable distribution of land and its benefits
One of the main obstacles to making land a Commons is the high price of land and the way it is bought and sold. The price of land is largely what determines the price of what is on the land, e.g. housing. Therefore, in order to bring housing, food, and other human needs within reach of all, the price of land must come down. Currently, demand for land is made up primarily of investment (speculation and hopes of accruing economic rent) and, to a lesser extent, demand from those who want land for their own use. Both contribute to the high price of land. The ultimate aim is for land to have no price as a commodity.
C. Increase access to land and land-based assets
Land reform will not immediately create a situation where there is no ownership of land. We need to take steps to increase public access to that land which remains in private ownership, by removing or reducing restrictions on access to many parts of the countryside as well as in urban and suburban areas.
Much progress has already been made on the right of individuals to access land for quiet, non-motorised recreation. However, there are still restrictions in many places. In Scotlandyou have the right to access all land unless it is around a private house or building. In Englandand Wales, only designated footpaths on official maps are available for public access. Of course, rights must be balanced with responsibilities; there will still be reasons why we would want to restrict certain activities on land, but those decisions would be made democratically rather than by the land ‘owner’.
Urban spaces that were owned and/or open to the public are increasingly being privatised with access restricted and controlled; Canary Wharf is a privately owned space where it is illegal to protest or do anything that is not authorised by the landowner, ie that does not involve going to work or spending money. Parks are also being used increasingly as places for private events that restrict public usage of the space. This ‘enclosing’ of public space must be resisted and restricted.
D. Take into account the interests of all, including future generations
The Commons will be durable and sustainable, such that every human and their descendants will be able to benefit equitably from the land. Climate change is now the biggest threat to the future of humanity. It is caused by the way in which humans use land and its resources. Activities such as mining and the release of fossil fuels, cutting down forests for agriculture, biofuels and consumer products, the use of chemicals in agriculture, and many people’s consumption habits (e.g. air travel and car use) all contribute to climate change. We need to ensure that land is used in such a way as to reduce and remove carbon emissions and greenhouse gases.
The economy is based on the need for continual growth and current policies are not sufficient to change practices. Part of the problem is that companies and consumers do not pay the full cost to the planet of the products of the land.
1. How should we define the Commons?
2. What kinds of land tenure will best facilitate the development of the Commons?
3. Should we make stewardship fundamental to the way we make decisions about land?
4. What would be the most effective mechanisms to make land distribution more equitable and accessible to other forms of tenure, eg co-operatives, community stewardship?
5. What should the access rights be in rural and urban areas? How to we balance rights and responsibilities?
6. How can we ensure that land is used to protect the planet and stop climate change?
Aim Three: Decision-making regarding land use and management must be fully participatory, democratic and inclusive.
Currently decisions about land are made by those who own the land, whether private or public, subject to market forces and with limited control by politicians via the planning system. In order to develop and implement a fully integrated people’s land policy, everyone needs to engage in effective processes that enable them to feed in to a national-level policy on how land should be used and managed.
Everyone should be able to engage in local decision-making on how the policy should be implemented locally. This could be done via People’s Assemblies, and locally via the distribution of land to land trusts, with open membership and direct democratic decision-making. The make-up of these assemblies and trusts could vary given local conditions and the nature of land-use and the stakeholders that implicates (environmental concerns, the rights of residents, the employees of industries).
The principles of recognition, inclusion and fairness should underpin a People’s Land Policy. Access to land is unequal throughout society, such as along lines of class, race, gender, age and ability (disability). Processes and mechanisms are needed to ensure a fair distribution of resources and justice for all.
1. How can we make decision-making fully participatory, democratic and inclusive?
2. What kind of structures and practices would be most effective?
3. What approaches would ensure that marginalised groups with less social and economic power would be able to participate equally?