We need land to grow food. We need a Community Land Bank

| 17th September 2009
A Community Land Bank to negotiate and release areas of land to groups of local people could help solve our growing land crisis

Use the word bank in a conversation these days and you are unlikely to elicit the most enthusiastic of replies. Financial institutions have had a bad rap, but a new idea to create a 'bank' that provides available land to local communities keen to grow their own food is getting a much more positive response.

The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG), a charity that supports local people to manage their local green spaces, has launched a consultation and feasibility study into the creation of a not-for-profit Community Land Bank.

The concept is simple. The Bank would negotiate for land, hold it and then release it to user groups under legally enforceable contracts, attracting charitable funding as appropriate, and facilitate transfers of tenants (community gardening groups) across a portfolio of land holdings. The Land Bank would also arrange insurance and ensure legal and technical compliance. In effect, it would be a safe pair of hands in which both land owners and users could trust.

The catalyst behind this idea is the rapid rise in demand for land to cultivate for food. Hardly a day seems to go by without some reference to the growing waiting lists for allotments – some estimates suggest that there are now 100,000 people on waiting lists for the current 300,000 plots. In London you might have to wait for ten or more years, in Bristol the wait can be up to three years.

Even with the growing trend to offer half (or smaller) plots, and more rigorous re-allocation of uncultivated plots, demand will outstrip supply. And the situation seems set to grow further: the economic downturn and growing unemployment are both important factors to take into account.

So where would the land come from? There is a huge range of sources out there - local authorities, private landlords, private companies or institutions with green spaces, such as hospitals. School grounds and under-used land around social housing developments could also provide opportunities. Recently, a new community kitchen garden even opened at an Army camp in Dorset.

It may sound paradoxical, but rural land could be included. People in isolated rural communities often don't have access to their own food growing plots, despite the countryside that surrounds them. Land here could come from farmers wishing to diversify or through parish councils.

We have already seen some organisations opening up their land holdings. The National Trust has created a highly publicised scheme to make 1,000 allotment plots available, while large organisations such as Network Rail and British Waterways are exploring alternative uses for their land holdings. In London, many of these sites are being utilised by the Capital Growth Project, which aims to bring 2012 new sites into food growing (by 2012).

There is a raft of initiatives starting to address this issue. The web-based Landshare scheme seeks to match up those wanting land with those that have land available. The temporary use of vacant land (known as 'meanwhile gardening') might expand, bearing in mind the hiatus in new building projects, while less formal schemes such as ‘guerrilla gardening’ are also flourishing. In parallel with this, the Transition movement is growing rapidly, with many groups seeking land for food growing.

Plans are in place to conduct research into these emerging trends this autumn and we have begun consultations with a number of these initiatives to ensure that the Community Land Bank is not simply duplication, but offers real added value.  

We don’t have a pre-conceived model for the Bank, which is why we are commissioning a feasibility study. However, if as expected, all the evidence points to a need for the Bank (and if it goes ahead under the auspices of FCFCG) we would consider setting up a subsidiary Community Interest Company to manage it.

At this stage we hope to gain outline ‘approval’ from a wide range of potential stakeholders for the concept, and then aim move forward into a more in-depth series of practical studies which will pilot the concept in specific locations. From that we hope to roll out a model that would be replicable in different areas, both urban and rural.

The benefits of creating a Community Land Bank would be many and varied. It would bring more land into cultivation and give local people the opportunity to get their hands dirty and grow their own produce. It would also give community groups the help and support they need not only to get their food-growing site off the ground, but also to make it sustainable in the future and better able to avoid the pitfalls that so many fledgling community groups face. 

From its decades of experience in the field, FCFCG knows that food growing projects can also help local people address concerns over climate change, well-being, health and education about where good food comes from, and of course community development.

It's still early days yet, but to date, responses from a wide range of stakeholders have been positive. And who knows, down the line the Community Land Bank might just help the word 'bank' get a better press in the future.

Jeremy Iles is the director of The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens

Useful links

The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens
Capital Growth

See also