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how land commissions can lead the fight against urban land-grabs

Writer : Jonathan Silver, Senior Analysis Fellow, College of Sheffield

When Boris Johnson offered the 35-acre Royal Albert Docks in London to Chinese language patrons in 2013, it was his largest industrial property deal as mayor of London and certainly one of China’s largest investments within the UK. The Larger London Authority offered off additional parcels of land within the space in a bid to regenerate the Royal Docks, which had fallen into disrepair with the decline of the docklands from the 1960s.

Over the previous few a long time, enormous transfers of land from public to non-public possession have occurred all through Britain. Since Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, one-tenth of all the British landmass, or about half of the land owned by all public our bodies, has been privatised. This has included, for example, dozens of former navy bases on Ministry of Defence land.

In our cities, one results of this land privatisation has been the long-term shift from public to non-public housing tenure: social rented housing declined from 31% of Britain’s complete housing inventory in 1981 to simply 18% in 2012.

As what was successfully our widespread wealth is offered off, native authorities are dropping the capability to deal with the interconnected housing and local weather change crises. From London to Leeds, this transformation of land has impeded democratic involvement in city planning. It has displaced working-class communities. And it has heightened social inequalities.

In a bid to make Liverpool the fairest and most socially inclusive metropolis area within the UK, the mayor, Steve Rotherham, launched England’s first land fee in September 2020. The fee’s findings chime with our analysis. It argues for a essentially new understanding of what land is.

Panoramic view of London from Highgate Hampstead Park
Even a lot of our so-called city commons don’t belong to the folks in any respect.
pabmap | Shutterstock

What’s a land fee?

Liverpool was the primary metropolitan space in England to ascertain a participatory land fee. The members had been from the general public, non-public and voluntary sectors in addition to from academia. They had been tasked with a radical year-long mission: to determine how you can make one of the best use of publicly owned land within the metropolis area.

The concept is to construct what economists name neighborhood wealth. In response, the fee launched its last report in June 2021, in live performance with the Manchester-based Centre for Native Financial Methods.

Public authorities in current a long time have largely checked out city land via a slim financial development lens. This has targeted on attracting funding on the expense of wider neighborhood wants – social housing, say, or public inexperienced house.

Against this, the fee recognises that land performs an essential perform in addressing social and environmental, in addition to financial, wants. This challenges the processes of privatisation, commodification and wealth extraction which have characterised city growth for the reason that 1980s, and which political economist Brett Christophers has described because the “new enclosure”. Comparable processes will be seen in different nations world wide too.

Karl Marx and others drew a direct connection between the enclosure of the commons, which passed off through the 16th-19th century in England, and the focus of wealth within the arms of the elite. If enclosure led to the dispossession of the agricultural peasantry, that storing up of wealth by the privileged few, in flip, led to the rise of capitalism in western Europe.

As historic analysis reveals, the very notion of the commons is revolutionary. It defines land as collective wealth that belongs to everybody. This stands in stark distinction to the capitalist mannequin of personal property.

It’s this concept that motivated the 17th-century reformer, Gerard Winstanley, together with a gaggle of women and men who turned often known as the Diggers, to create a social order based mostly on widespread possession of the land.

This historic custom animates the Liverpool land fee’s imaginative and prescient of how city land will be managed for the advantage of the various quite than the few. The report explicitly situates the fee’s work inside that lengthy historical past of enclosure and resistance, quoting a 1649 pamphlet from Winstanley: “The earth was not made for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants and Beggars; nevertheless it was made to be a typical Livelihood to name, with out respect of individuals.”

Overhead view of the Three Graces and the Liverpool waterfront

City land is more and more seen as an financial asset, on the expense of its social features.
Phil Kiel | Unsplash, FAL

Sensible steps

The fee’s report features a sequence of sensible suggestions to reclaim the social perform of city land. These embody establishing a citizen-led physique for governing public land. It recommends making public land out there to neighborhood organisations for socially priceless initiatives reminiscent of cooperatives, inexperienced areas and social enterprises. And it suggests establishing a web-based map of public land assets, together with empty land, that’s at the moment held by councils.

Additional, it recommends capturing rising land values (future earnings derived from the event of at the moment underused land) to fund reparations for Liverpool’s historic position within the transatlantic slave commerce. And it suggests utilizing public land to put in the inexperienced infrastructure wanted to fight local weather change.

If adopted, these suggestions will mark a rupture from the Thatcherite strategy to promoting off public belongings that has dominated for the reason that 1980s. As such, the fee demonstrates how selections about city land use will be undertaken in a democratic, participatory and clear method.

Our analysis on public land privatisation within the neighbouring metropolis of Manchester means that the land fee strategy must be expanded to different UK cities. We raised a lot of issues about public land gross sales by Manchester Metropolis Council, together with the dearth of transparency round offers and the truth that giant quantities of public land have been offered to non-public builders to construct metropolis centre house blocks that include no social or inexpensive housing.

In response to this analysis, over 60 civil society organisations signed an open letter calling for the mayor of Larger Manchester, Andy Burnham, to stay to his manifesto dedication to ascertain a Larger Manchester land fee.

The UK authorities’s “levelling-up” programme has introduced regional inequality and postindustrial city decline to the fore as soon as once more. However addressing these longstanding points would require a basic rethink about what land is for and the aim it serves in at present’s society. The Liverpool land fee has opened the door to the long run. Which cities will comply with?


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