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Ensuring land access

A TTDorchester initiative on land leased from the Duchy of Cornwall (photo - Transition Town Dorchester)


How will you actually get your hands on land for whatever land-based projects or enterprises your Transition initiative has decided to pursue?


Localising the production of food, fibre, fuel and so on will mean obtaining access to land. Our towns and cities could be a network of intensive market gardens, productive fruit and nut-bearing trees, fish- and vegetable-producing hydroponics systems set up on areas of hard standing, productive ponds and new allotments...

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Access to land can be secured in a range of imaginative ways. Work with landowners. Seek land that is currently unused and can be used for free. Raise funds to buy land into community ownership. Invite landowners to see opening up access as being both in their and the community’s interest.

Full description

Localising the production of food, fibre, fuel and so on will mean obtaining access to land. Our towns and cities could be a network of intensive market gardens, productive fruit and nut-bearing trees, fish- and vegetable-producing hydroponics systems set up on areas of hard standing, productive ponds and new allotments. Such a tapestry of land uses would greatly increase the biodiversity and food security of the community.

An aerial photograph of any town or city shows plenty of unused (or underused) pockets of land in or around it, but there are a number of reasons why that land may be hard to gain access to. The owner may be holding on to it in the hope of getting planning permission for development at some point. Ownership may be contested. It may be owned by the local authority, who have no use for it. It may contaminated by its industrial past. Perhaps nobody knows whose it is! To own or lease land or property, your Transition initiative will need a constitution and to be a legally recognised entity; under UK law, there are only four organisational models that can do this:

  • a company limited by guarantee
  • Industrial and Provident Societies
  • Community Interest Companies
  • Charitable incorporated organisations

If your Transition initiative is an unincorporated association or a Trust, it cannot exist as a legal person separate from the people who run it, and therefore cannot own or rent land in its own name. This can be overcome by one person doing so on behalf of the group, though they would have sole legal liabilities for the purchase or lease.

So how do you actually acquire land? Rachel Roddam in Transition Derwent found that getting involved in the community in a range of groups helped her find land. This has proved a great way of starting Transition and of removing any fear of making land available to Transition groups. She is a member of her local Hall and Recreation Ground committees; they had ignored the Transition initiative on particular projects, but now, with a fresh committee, the Transition group gets a much fairer hearing. This has opened the door to various potential local food projects.

Unusual land access has been secured by the ‘Food from the sky’ initiative in Crouch End, London. They have been working with their local Budgens supermarket to increase its stocking of local produce (it now stocks 1,500 products from within 100 miles of the shop), and have started a food garden on the shop’s roof. Legal and insurance concerns meant that getting access proved complex, but now the garden is providing produce for the shop and local people, and is attracting many volunteers, including pupils from the local school.

On the Isles of Scilly, Transition Scilly wanted to create a community orchard. They approached the Duchy of Cornwall, who own most of the land on the islands, to ask for a plot. The Duchy weren’t keen on letting land to Transition Scilly as an unincorporated organisation, being much happier with leasing land either to individuals or businesses. One of the group’s members, who is already a farmer on the islands and leases land from the Duchy, added the site to the portfolio of land he rents. Two-thirds of an acre was identified by a sympathetic and supportive land steward. The orchard was planted at a community tree planting day (see [orchard planting kids scilly pic]) in March 2010 and is now growing nicely.

Some local authorities actively encourage communities to develop community orchards on council land. Chichester District Council, for example, has developed its own guidance notes on this, and offers support and simple agreements for any local groups wanting to set up such projects.

The old saying ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get’ is well illustrated in the story of the North Queensferry Transition Initiative in Scotland and their quest for a community forest garden site. They talked with Fife Council, who invited them to look at maps of the land they own and identify any sites they were interested in. Luckily, the site they identified is owned by a part of the council that has a very supportive allotments officer, who is taking the group’s designs to the planning department. He actively encourages models of community gardens as opposed to traditional allotments, because it simplifies things for the council, who need only one contract with one organisation rather than multiple leases to individuals.

In Narberth in Wales, ten years of trying to get the local council to provide new allotment land had been unproductive, leaving many in the community associating the word ‘allotment’ with feelings of intense frustration. In 2008 a new approach was taken. A new group approached a landowner who was keen to support them. They leased a 1.2-hectare (3-acre) site for ten years at a reasonable rent, and ploughed and divided it into plots. The allotments have been well subscribed and there are now plans for a community orchard on the site. The group found input from local Transition groups and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens to be very helpful.

Transition in Action: Engaging landowners in Transition

Another route to accessing land is to draw local landowners into the Transition process. In June 2007, Transition Town Totnes and the Dartington Hall Trust (owners of around 1,000 acres of land on the edge of Totnes) co-presented a one-day event called ‘Estates in Transition’. This brought together landowners and estate managers from across the south-west to hear from speakers such as Chris Skrebowski and Jeremy Leggett the effects peak oil and climate change would probably have on land-management decisions. Much of the day was run as World Cafe sessions, exploring what land management might look like if based on an understanding of peak oil and climate change.

The local Sharpham Estate attended and has since become very involved in local Transition. Dartington has begun a land use review process, looking at how to use its land beyond 2014 when the current tenant farmer’s lease expires. Transition Town Totnes is represented in this process. Attracting local landowners and inviting them to be part of this process is an excellent way of gaining their participation. Landowners do tend to be conservative, so working with an organisation they respect often helps greatly. It’s possible that far fewer landowners would have come to ‘Estates in Transition’ if it hadn’t been hosted by Dartington, a respected local landowner, and been chaired by the local head of Country Landowners’ Association.

Transition in Action: New allotments in Forres

by Carin Schwartz

Transition Town Forres was invited to negotiate a lease with Moray Council for 0.59 hectares (1.45 acres) of horticultural land, starting on 1 April 2009. The negotiation succeeded, as we agreed to have a community garden rather than allotments (which allows the council to end the lease easier than if it had been allotments). The council could then give us a lease of 11 years. Had we operated allotments they would have been bound by the Scottish Allotments Act of 1892 and would not easily have been able to end the lease.

We had many discussions with interested gardeners and agreed to have round ‘pods’, mainly owing to principles from permaculture that there are few straight lines in nature. Each pod is 250m2 and
is shared between four to six people. After two growing seasons we have made the following observations:

  • We currently have 90 people growing food.
  • People who didn’t know how to grow food are learning from each other.
  • Illness or absence has been ‘covered’ by fellow pod holders, so we have very few neglected pods or pod slices.
  • Many new friendships have been created and even the most quiet or reserved gardener interacts at least with people in their own pod.
  • Each pod has found different solutions to how it operates. Some grow produce in individual slices while others work together. Every pod is inspiring.
  • Only 14 people have left in two years, 20 per cent of those who began. Some local authorities see up to 50 per cent of allotmenteers leave in the first couple of years.
  • We have 26 chickens, two beehives and eight wormeries.

Bringing this about has been an amazing community process. We have people from many different areas of Forres, including natives, newcomers, young children, some quite elderly people, schoolchildren, at least one farmer, RAF personnel, and a host of other citizens. Many people have gradually taken on more roles and, by and large, I would say it works well.

The biggest wart is probably the interaction with the council. Although the land is legally owned by ‘the common good’ (the people of Forres), the council didn’t make it easy for us to extend the lease (which we need to do for funding reasons), although at the time of writing, we have just been granted a 30-year lease, which will help us enormously with further fundraising (it took eight months).
In addition to the land for horticultural use we have 0.34 hectares (0.84 acres), which is a big car park with an agricultural shed on it. We want to use this shed as a community environmental education centre and we’ll get there in the end, but the red tape and hoops the council want us to go through are mind-boggling. Moray Council charges commercial rent, saying it has to maximize the profit to the common good fund for the benefit of the people of Forres.

Transition in Action: Transition Town Dorchester’s Community Farm

The Transition Town Dorchester group, inspired by Local Food by Tamzin Pinkerton and myself, decided to start a community farm. Using Google Earth, they identified five bits of land in the area. With the help of the local town council they looked into who owned the sites, and found that four were owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. They called the Duchy office and had a very productive conversation with an intrigued official, who told them, “Put together a proposal, send it to me and I'll see what we can do.” The group created their proposal, which they described as “all very official and professional”, and sent it in.

They met with the Duchy official and found that the site they preferred wasn’t available, but that three others were. They negotiated a five-years tenancy (£200 per year for a 0.8-hectare/2-acre site), while the Duchy paid for fencing the site, installing paths and providing topsoil. The site was designed as a mixture of vegetable plot, polytunnel, orchard, poultry area and wild area. When the agreement was signed, a public meeting was held, and now the project, ‘Under Lanche Community Farm’, is well under way, with a local comedy night donating over £1,000. Membership is open to anyone. Time from initial idea to securing the lease of the site? Eight months.