No one knows a place like the people who live there’ – Rachael Rowe asks if community land trusts are the housing solution for rural communities
there are housing estates springing up all over North Dorset. And there’s no doubt that affordable homes are required for local people. Dorset is one of the most expensive places in England to buy a home and it is critical that the county can both attract key workers and enable people to live in their local communities. How can communities stop developers building uninspiring eyesores or luxury homes that local people don’t want or can’t afford to buy. Community land trusts are having a significant impact in rural areas and could be a solution for places that need to expand but where local people want to maintain control.
A community land trust?
There may well be a community land trust (CLT) in a village near you, and several have achieved remarkable things. CLTs give ordinary people the means to steward land for local use and sustainability. Primarily, they focus on developing and managing homes. However, a CLT can also be used to manage other important assets in a local community, such as a post office or village hall. Some are also beginning to look at community renewable energy schemes.
A CLT gives local people an opportunity to have more control over developments. Alison Ward is the lead community land trust advisor at Middlemarch, a social enterprise set up to support community-led housing, for example, through a community land trust, housing co-op or co-housing organisation.
‘No one knows a place like the people who live there,’ she says. ‘Many communities today feel as though they are not in control of developments. They don’t want places to lose their character and they don’t want policy imposed from outside. People want to be able to plan sites for themselves.
‘There’s a real need for affordable homes in rural communities so that younger people are able to continue to live locally – that’s often a starting point for a community land trust.
‘Typically, a parish council will make an assessment of local housing need – usually there’s a mix of types of property, depending on the local requirement. What we tend to find is that local people have a very good knowledge of what is needed, and also of how it should look. Where they usually need the assistance is with the planning and building, which is where we can help.’
Who knows best?
Once a community land trust has been set up and a local housing need is identified, there’s a call out for suitable land. Sometimes a landowner will offer to sell a piece of land for local use. ‘Usually, communities know where a project would work best,’ says Alison.. ‘In Powerstock they chose a place in the centre of the village, opposite a Grade 1 listed building and down a long winding lane. No large developer would have gone there, but it worked for the community. They knew what was right and got eight affordable homes there.’
Once a CLT has a site, they need to partner with a housing association and developer who will finance the build and do the construction. The small village of Toller Porcorum has 160 houses. Their priority was actually a new post office, as the current one was in an unsuitable building. Toller Porcorum CLT secretary Rorie Geddes has worked with the project since 1999:
‘It all hinged around our post office, which was closing. In 2012, a village survey showed a lot of enthusiasm for a community land trust. Some land became available from a local landowner, Venera Hereward, but the condition was that a new post office would have to be built as well as the affordable housing.
‘We worked with Aster Housing, which now manages the homes as well. We get a ground rent which is ploughed back into the community. However, it takes a long time to get these things done. It took us five years.’
Working to local needs
When communities take on major projects like a CLT, there are lots of lessons to learn. Terry Bennett, involved with a CLT in Bradford Abbas, and Rorie Geddes in Toller Porcorum both feel the length of time to get things done can be frustrating. Rorie says: ‘Our priority was the post office –there wasn’t that much of a local housing need, so people from other parts of Dorset moved in to the houses. We may have had a different outcome if we had sold the houses in an affordable way instead of renting them.’
Alison has also worked with Norton sub Hamdon in South Somerset.
‘They have been going for a long time now. They initially got 12 affordable homes developed – they partnered with Abri. But their community shop was at risk so they also included that in the CLT. They didn’t do it because they love building but because they love their community.
‘Queen Camel is another great example where they built 20 affordable homes, and then the CLT took on a school building. The school had been at risk of flooding so there was always a plan to close it, but the community did a massive job of raising the funds to keep it. Now Old School contains a community cafe, a gallery space for local artists, business space, a day centre … there’s even a community laundry.’
For those communities considering a community land trust, the housing enabling officer at the local authority is a good starting point. Both the Middlemarch website and National Community Land Trusts Network are full of excellent examples of developments where communities are taking back control of their areas and making positive change.