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Land use for the common good

Words: Kate Swade

We have a rich and often painful heritage of discussion and conflict on land ownership and use in the UK, from enclosures to clearances, and from Diggers to squatters. Kate Swade considers what the future could look like if we were to prioritise the common good in land use

At Shared Assets we are preoccupied by land and questions about land – but we’re interested in the future of land, not the past. We want to explore the possible answers to the big land questions in a 21st century, diverse, unequal society. 

What we’re interested in is new models of using land as a multifunctional asset that creates multiple benefits, one that is about reconnecting people to the land and environment around them. We work with pioneering organisations to develop these fresh approaches to what we call Common Good Land Use – woodland-based social enterprises, cooperative agro-ecological farms, community-led parks and open spaces.

"Planning is, of course, all about taking a strategic approach to land and its use"

We also carry out research into what works, and advocate for changes in the system so that these models can thrive. Land and its use is utterly fundamental to the way society operates, yet it is rarely talked about in policy or strategic terms – except by planners. We believe the planning system, and the creative professionals within it, holds one of the keys to creating a viable and resilient modern land system.

Planning for the common good

Planning is, of course, all about taking a strategic approach to land and its use. It is embedded in the democratic system, and has its roots in the endeavour to create a better society – one that enhances the common good, rather than private interests.

As the TCPA’s Planning for People Manifesto says: “Planning is vital to making great places, but over the last 30 years its reputation has declined. This is partly because it lost sight of any vision that connected with people’s real lives and partly because planning regulation was seen as putting a brake on the free market. We know this is wrong… However, it has become a powerful myth and has led to us losing any collective idea of how to shape the future.”

"We lay out systemic, long-term ways in which planning system could change to enable true common good land use"

Indeed, the planning system has repeatedly come up in our research as a blocker, rather than an enabler, of innovative mixed-use sustainable developments, particularly those involving agriculture or forestry. In our report Planning for the Common Good (pdf), we lay out systemic, long-term ways in which planning system could change to enable true common good land use. Key among these are:

  • Easier permissions for low-impact developments 

Permission to develop landworkers’ dwellings is often crucial to land-based social enterprises. Often their focus on multiple benefits and outcomes means they don’t make profits – being able to live on the land can be the difference between a viable and an unviable business. A policy for Low Impact Developments in England, similar to the One Planet Development policy in Wales, could open up viability for many common good woodland and agriculture projects.

  • Expand material considerations to include ecologically sound management and creation of social value 

Different land-based activities can have vastly different contributions to natural capital and the well-being of the community – but the planning system can fail to distinguish between them. The NPPF’s environmental policy section, and the current material considerations, neither sufficiently account for the damage to land caused by many mainstream approaches to land management, nor for the benefits of more ecologically friendly forms of land management. Developments aimed at delivering social value – collective benefit for the community – should be able to draw on that benefit in their applications.

For the common good

Common Good Land Use meets six broad criteria:

  • 1. It provides sustainable livelihoods. 
  • 2. It enriches the environment.
  • 3. It produces the things people need.
  • 4. It provides shared benefits.
  • 5. There is some kind of community control.
  • 6. It puts land is at the centre of a wider system of change: any vision of a more socially just society must start with how land and resources are used, and who has access to them. 

  • Allow consideration of applicant’s ownership structure

The planning system is blind to applicant type, which disadvantages those trying to create more systemic benefits, and who might willingly bind themselves to a higher standard of environmental management or more stringent planning conditions. We propose that applicants with restrictions on their ability to generate private profits (as demonstrated through their legal form), should be given preferential treatment, such as free pre-application advice. Not-for-private-profit applicants, such as Community Land Trusts, also offer a mechanism for capturing uplifts in land value caused by planning gain – something that planning policy currently fails to control. 

  • Create new use classes to reflect multiple uses of land embedded in sustainable development, and to support the creation of natural capital 

To deliver social value while remaining financially sustainable, land-based social enterprises have developed new models of land management. Meanwhile, we now have greater evidence of the environmental costs of some forms of industrial land management. Existing use classes have yet to catch up, making them a barrier for innovative projects that rely on diverse land uses and activities. A new set of land-based use classes, informed by evidence of contributions to and reductions from natural capital, could come with development rights that meet the needs of projects making the largest contributions. 

The Public Interest Lease

The Merton Land Policy Group – an informal association of lawyers, surveyors and community landowners – has been developing a new kind of lease that prioritises public interest.

The Public Interest Head Lease would enable communities and other publicly interested bodies to prevent hoarding or neglect of land by empowering them to obtain an interest in the land for its better use. Sitting between the freehold or existing long leasehold interest, and a long lease of the land for the existing user, it would allow the landowner to retain all the economic interest in the land until the Public Interest Lease holder can deliver its better use. Upon this, the landowner would receive 50 per cent of any surplus generated from its sustainable development.

The Merton LPG is named after the 1235 statute of Merton, which sparked the beginning of land enclosures.


Future planners

We see the planners of the future as the creators of common good land use, architects of a system that reconnects people to the land while supporting modern land-based economies. We’re not professional planners at Shared Assets and know that our ideas above need more work. We’d love you to help us think about how planners can lead the creation of a resilient land system for the 21st century. Find us at www.sharedassets.org.uk  

Kate Swade is a director of Shared Assets and trustee and chair of estates for Toynbee Hall. Shared Assets supports landowners and communities who want to manage land as a sustainable asset.


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