Food is an issue that galvanizes so many Transition communities, but many of the classic Transition activities around food, like Landshare and Abundance projects, are to some extent ways of making the best of the ever-shrinking space available for ecological growing. Nothing wrong with that, but it meant I was rather excited when – via a post on the Transition Network site in 2011 – I discovered the fledgling Ecological Land Co-operative working on a model for actually reclaiming land from industrialized agriculture and making it available to local, small-scale agroecology and permaculture projects. I quickly got involved, and was elected as a director in the summer of 2012.
Since then we’ve delivered three new ecological smallholdings into the hands of eager growers, and plan to reach twenty-five(!) new holdings in the next five years, and then spread from there, influencing planning policy as we go.
And right now, we’re seeking people with £500 or more to invest in community shares with us, to raise the funds to take on our next site. But more on that at the end of the post. For now, let’s take a peek at the unfairness of the situation we’re working to change.
Land in the UK
As Simon Fairlie bluntly describes in The Land magazine, “nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06% of the population, while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.”
I think that pretty much sums it up. And such land ownership by the few engenders the kind of uniform, large-scale, mechanised agriculture that is gradually becoming our mental image of “a farm” (despite the best efforts of bucolic adverts for eggs and dairy products).
All this despite the fact that it is long- and well-established that such agriculture produces far less food per acre than traditional smallholdings – quite apart from its oil dependence and impacts on the environment, animal welfare, soil depletion and the rest. And the fact that the average age of a UK farm holder is now 58, since private farms are now generally far too large for would-be new farmers to afford, especially with rocketing land prices…
The ELC is based on the idea that smallholdings provide an ideal context for diverse, desirable low-carbon, localised lifestyles that provide satisfying employment, a reliable, home-grown food supply, and a desperately needed model for true sustainability that is in harmony with the local ecology.
Since the two key barriers to the simple aim of living and working on a piece of land are extortionate land prices and the intricate absurdities of the planning permission system, we have been pioneering a way to get around both.
The Ecological Land Co-operative
The basic idea of the Co-operative is that it buys land that has been, or is at risk of being, intensively managed. It then uses its expertise and experience to oversee the process of securing planning permission for building low-impact homes on site and putting in basic off-grid infrastructure.
Once this is achieved, the land is made available at an affordable price to people who have the skills to manage it ecologically, but who could not otherwise afford to do so. The money received from the purchases (or rental, if they prefer) by new residents then goes towards the co-op’s purchase of another intensively managed site, where the same process is put into action, allowing more land to be “rescued” from industrialised agriculture.
Planning permission for homes is secured before prospective residents of a site are asked to make any financial commitment, but they do have to agree to a strict management plan which requires that the land is always managed so as to maintain and enhance habitats, species diversity, and landscape quality, and to facilitate the provision of low-impact livelihoods. There are also conditions stipulating that if they ever want to sell the land and move on, then it must be sold at an affordable price, so that it is never priced out of reach. Beyond these requirements, the land is theirs to steward as they see fit.
If you are interested to hear more about our story to date, see my recent piece for STIR magazine, but in short we sold community shares to raise the money to buy the Devon land for our first three smallholdings in 2009. We christened it Greenham Reach and, after an arduous battle, finally won planning permission in 2013, with great support from the local Transition group, Sustainable Villages.
The pictures in this blog are all taken from the new holdings that our residents have developed there since (more photos available here).
In the words of one of them, Ruth O’Brien:
“We have been trying to do this for years, but there are a lot of hurdles. Thanks to the ELC’s help in removing and negotiating some of these, we are now here doing it”.
The co-op is unusual (unique?) in that the people doing most of the work of securing land and permission aren’t the people who are planning to live on the land. We believe that there are loads of people who are well-suited to small-scale growing but not well-suited to arduous planning battles (interest in our plots bears this out!), and hope that we are providing a model that can bring lots of those people together with land in a way that benefits us all.
With much hard-earned experience from our first five years and ultimate success, we want to really ramp up our impact now, daring to dream that this could be part of a real solution to the thorny problem of land access in the UK. We want to unleash the collective genius of local communities and growers to create the diverse, locally appropriate solutions which we believe are demanded by some of our biggest collective challenges.
So please do consider supporting us by investing in our withdrawable community shares (min. £500). This is a critical moment for the success of the co-op. Think of it like a crowdfunder – supporting a project you believe in – except you should get your money back, with interest!
All detailed information available at: www.ecologicalland.coop
Help us to support people like the American farmer quoted in Colin Tudge’s book So Shall We Reap:
“I just want to farm well. I don’t want to compete with anybody.”
You can’t say fairer than that.
Shaun Chamberlin was a co-founder of Transition Town Kingston and authored the movement’s second book, The Transition Timeline (Green Books, 2009). He became a director of the Ecological Land Co-operative in 2012, and stepped down as Chair at last week’s AGM, though he remains a member. He writes at www.darkoptimism.org