Lily Gordon-Brown studies Housing and Community Planning and is a member of the ACORN community union in Liverpool. Her new pamphlet, The Housing Crisis is a Land Crisis, emphasises the importance of land ownership and use in our ongoing housing crisis, and is published in collaboration with Greater Manchester Housing Action. The Meteor spoke to Lily, over a Zoom call, about her latest publication.
Your pamphlet’s title proposes that we should look at the causes of the housing crisis differently, as a simultaneous land crisis. What does that mean and why are Community Land Trusts important as a potential solution?
In the UK there is an incredible inequality in the ownership of land. About 25,000 landowners, which are mainly members of the aristocracy and corporations – own half of the Untied Kingdom.
It’s strange, because land, what its worth and who has the right to it, is so integral to everything we do and our everyday lives. But this concentration of ownership has slipped under the radar a bit, even amongst people who have been focused on the housing crisis.
It’s not simply the inequality this concentration translates into huge economic consequences. It’s not well known for instance that around 80% of the rise in house prices are due to land values increasing. It’s not the bricks and mortar or that construction has got more expensive. It’s a consistent process of land speculation and gentrification. These are especially prominent in areas like Manchester. In an area like Ancoats, a development goes up, maybe just one yuppie coffee shop and landowners are there speculating. If the land is more expensive so is the sale or rental price of the home you build on it. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.
CLTs are therefore so important because they take that land out of the market and can provide affordable housing on it instead. Whether it is for homeownership, for rent, some even work with housing associations, they can offer a home for £30,000 instead of £300,000, which is a big deal for communities priced out by these land value rises.
Another key point your pamphlet makes is that CLTs are originally a US phenomenon and one intimately tied to the civil rights movement. Was that something the people you interview felt like part of their heritage?
When I talked to CLT organisers and academics in the US they immediately emphasised this connection. The first CLT, New Communities Inc, was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement. It was primarily focused on agriculture and increasing African-American land ownership and fighting contemporary economic systems of racial exploitation. It had some considerable success, coming into ownership of huge amounts of land by the mid-70s.
CLTs have changed a lot since then, you have had a resurgence from the 1990s but there has been a widening ideological split between those rooted in that early period about racial justice and promoting common ownership. On the other side then you get models more based around providing affordable housing ownership and are much larger and more professionalised.
The pamphlet engages with lots of great Community Land Trusts in the UK. What are some of their stories?
There’s a big difference between rural and urban models. This is clear in places like Cornwall where CLTs are often used by residents to protect the land from the price inflation of so many second homes, helping locals afford their own.
In these areas CLTs function to provide affordable housing and ownership for communities that can’t rely on the local authorities to do it. While if you look at urban CLTs like Granby4Streets theirs is rooted in a definite experiment in community organising and ownership.
Granby4Streets has its roots in decades of disinvestment by the government and local authorities. There were plans to demolish whole rows of housing, really gut the whole area. As a response locals formed the Granby Resident Association.
They wanted to stay in the area and fought tooth and nail over decades. The strength of the CLT has come from that decade’s long struggle and committed community organising. They built a big public profile through that activism, street art and guerilla gardening, they started what has become a successful monthly street market. I live across the street from there and go every month. Eventually they had a lucky breakthrough, a large donation that allowed them to purchase 11 properties.
In London, the situation is very different. I talked with London Community Land Trust, which was developed with Citizens UK, a big community organisation.
They are operating in a completely different context, there is much less land available with prices that are mostly untenable for affordable housing. But their successes are important. On the Mile End site I mention in the pamphlet, they were able to offer 23 homes at a genuinely affordable rate. But they had to compromise with a developer who still got 200 market-price homes out of the site. The chat I had with them was very honest about this reality of compromise. Even so, they have at least three more sites in progress across London.
One of the central questions your pamphlet asks is about the “transformative potential” of the CLT model. Do you have an answer to it?
That question of transformative potential is really difficult. Some people see CLTs as transformative simply because they remove housing and land from the market, that itself is a transformation. Whereas you have a more quote-un-quote “radical” section who think CLTs need to be outspoken against land speculation and capitalism with a key role in educating their members.
It is quite radical to be removing any house or land from the market, because of how dominant these capitalist forces are within the housing market. Despite the ongoing crisis housing is still the safest place for private investment in the UK. These many people alongside these huge property companies see London, even with these huge developments of flats with these high vacancy rates, as a safe place for capital and investment.
For models like Granby4Streets and in some of the CLTs operating across New York their role doesn’t end with affordable housing. It’s about coming together and deciding “do we just need housing or do we need a community care facility or kitchen” and ensuring that once that CLT is established that sense of togetherness isn’t lost. So that common feeling transfers through generations.
For instance, Granby4Streets worked with Assemble, an architect collective, to turn one of their properties into a Winter Garden and community centre. I’ve been in there, it is stunning.
What do you think is the Community Land Trust model’s role in solving the housing crisis?
CLTs, from the people I spoke to, are less about providing affordable housing and more about the process it entails. They are about making housing a community endeavour, this idea of commoning, of people coming together and discussing what they want to see on their streets.
One of the most inspiring conversations I had was with L8 Matters. They’re located around the Toxteth area and have registered as a new CLT, which is a first step for getting on the Local Authorities list of potential recipients.
But their emphasis is very much on the community organising side first. They want to build on their established community and educate about CLTs, housing issues and land first.
They have this inspiring focus on inter-generational education making sure knowledge is passed down. And people get involved from the outset, 17-year-old kids know what a CLT is and why it exists. It’s in a nascent stage but that idea of establishing the direction, priorities and voices is really what radical CLTs are all about.
Propositional not oppositional, the way the government has been in the last 40 years many people feel all they can do is to react or protest. That’s good and people should do that. But maybe CLTs are a form for working with those feelings of frustration and disconnection and working to transfer that anger and energy built up, into building something more proactive that changes the balance of power in these places.
What needs to change for CLTs to become a more prevalent model in the UK?
There needs to be a bigger ideological shift in the country. As it stands many working-class communities don’t have access to the necessary time and resources, and CLTs need that time, they rely on volunteers. Without a systematic change in how we support local housing programs CLTs could remain a marginal model.
Meanwhile, there is a localist ideology that cuts across the political spectrum. Boris Johnson supported CLTs when he was Mayor of London. CLTs as a policy came in under the Coalition Government of 2010-14. It kind of feeds the beast of individual responsibility or community responsibility against the “Big State”.
Real change has got to be part of a larger project, that’s the Preston Model and ideas of community wealth building could work as a way of supporting communities to build their CLT models.
The Liverpool Land Commission is also a great example. It was convened from a mix of CLT members, Community Interest Companies, public professionals and academics. They created a professionalised group for analysing land. Meanwhile there are plans for an elected ‘Citizen Observatory’ that would help implement and monitor a permanent commission. That would be made up of elected community member. If that is realised the Commission has potential to become much more of an ecology keeping it linked to this grassroots network.
What do you see as next for CLTs in the UK?
We can look out for larger umbrella organisations such as Breaking Ground in Liverpool, which look to bring community-led housing movements across city-wide contexts together. I’m looking forward to seeing new CLTs like L8 Matters growing and making a big impact. Another avenue to explore is how CLTs can work with the larger housing movement, such as cooperating and organising with tenant unions.
It is so important to keep bringing the work of CLTs to light, exploring the democratic and community-led nature of their structures.
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Featured image: GMHA
What about uplift value? A £20,000 patch of land in Barnet goes up in price to £15,000,000 once planning permission is granted, before anything even gets built. That difference implies that the real difficulty lies in securing PP rather than acquiring the land itself. Our planning system is uniquely dysfunctional due to its uncertainty, complexity, and discretionary nature, so the only developers that can navigate the slow process are the big ones who can afford teams of consultants and lawyers. CLTs aren’t going to make a dent in the housing crisis unless we have major planning reform to make building simpler and quicker for everyone.