Community Land Ownership for Affordable Housing

To counter the housing crisis, we need to upgrade the community ownership legislation in Wales, Casey Edwards argues.

Wales’ ongoing housing shortage is an issue in increasingly urgent need of effective, long-term policy responses. In January, new statutory figures demonstrated that 1,700 children were living in temporary accommodation in Wales.

We are not unique in experiencing the repercussions of decades of commodification of the basic human need for shelter, but, in some regards, our approach to tackling the resultant issues is unlike that of our neighbours. In terms of short-term response to immediate need, not least to homelessness when COVID first struck, the combined approach of the Welsh public and third sectors has been effective. In addition, it significantly outstrips the policy response over the border in terms of sustained response. Looking further ahead, homelessness prevention plans are being put in place and ambitious social housing figures set for delivery by Welsh local authorities and housing associations.

The way that land is brought forward for housing development affects where and how many homes can be built, the quality of the homes and how affordable they are.

But in order to achieve a longer-term rebalancing of a badly damaged system, we need to look at how the people of Wales can be empowered to contribute to meeting their own communities’ needs. Principally, we need to enable access to land and, in this regard, Welsh policy lags behind that of England or Scotland, where people have far greater rights to access land for the benefit of their communities. It’s time we reassess this in Wales. 

To state the obvious: land and housing development are inextricably linked. The way that land is brought forward for housing development affects where and how many homes can be built, the quality of the homes and how affordable they are.

The current market-led system has been long dominated by developers competing for land, in high value areas, often in short supply, aiming to maximise profits rather than led by a desire to deliver the right homes in the right places for the right people. 

This system is not working for Wales, where the housing crisis, exacerbated by the Covid property boom and increasing wealth inequalities, continues to affect an unbelievably high proportion of the population every day.  Changes are required to ensure that more land is brought forward for high quality mixed tenure housing more quickly, with the local community at the heart of decision making, management, and ownership.

Welsh Government policy has primarily focussed on a social housing response to this crisis, both in terms of new development and in bringing existing stock up to a higher standard to protect tenants from the worsening effects of the climate crisis, with pledges to deliver their Programme for Government in these areas. Alongside this commitment to the social sector is, for the first time, a recognition of the power of Welsh communities to address their own housing need and a pledge to continued governmental support for community-led initiatives, including housing co-operatives and community land trusts, as well as a commitment to ‘bringing more homes into common ownership’ in areas affected by high numbers of second homes. What is missing from both this document and wider political discourse is a commitment to opening up community access to the land needed to deliver on this housing pledge. 

What is community-led housing?

Community-led housing can come in a variety of forms, but fundamentally it refers to the practice of communities taking a leading role in providing their own housing solutions – whether that is through building a new property, taking over existing properties, or protecting existing affordable housing stock. It could be a small group collectively buying a house to share and rent out affordably, social housing tenants setting up a tenant management committee, community members buying local land on which to develop homes which might be kept in perpetuity for local people at affordable rates. These are all examples but there is no one-size-fits-all approach and community-led housing can be adapted to best suit a community. The aim is to give people more control of where they live to achieve a shared goal. 

The conversation about community access to and ownership of land is a relatively underdeveloped one in post-devolution Wales.

There is growing potential for community-led housing in Wales – the Communities Creating Homes team at the Wales Co-operative Centre is working with over 60 groups who wish to develop their own affordable housing – but there remain barriers that can only be overcome with the support of Welsh Government. Not least amongst these is the ability for community groups to access and acquire land at rates that allow the delivery of affordable homes. 

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Learning from elsewhere

The conversation about community access to and ownership of land is a relatively underdeveloped one in post-devolution Wales. Currently Welsh citizens wishing to access sub-market value land for community housing initiatives are reliant on either philanthropic landowners, or on community asset transfers or compulsory purchase orders. Neither of these options offers quite the same empowerment as is enjoyed by communities across other parts of the UK, as they either focus solely on assets and facilities owned by public bodies or necessitate the direct involvement of a public body to implement the power. 

In Scotland, and to some degree England, there exist policies to enable the transfer of land and assets into community ownership which could set useful precedents for Welsh approaches with a view to enhance the power that communities in Wales have over land and assets to develop affordable housing. In Scotland, such national conversations have led to the introduction of policies and legislation designed to ensure that community groups can make use of sites in their local communities for housing, as well as projects like community-energy production. The Community Right to Buy policy, enshrined in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gives community bodies first dibs on sites put up for sale in their vicinity, and has led, both directly and indirectly, to empowered communities driving forwards on housing schemes, to address the needs of local people, like the Wigtown and Bladnoch Community Initiative.

Improving community ownership rights could be transformative for people in Wales, allowing communities take control of their housing situations and provide the affordable homes that they really want and need. 

Recommendations to deliver more affordable community-led homes

We’re calling on the Welsh Government to strengthen community empowerment and ownership rights to help deliver the commitments set out in the Programme for the Government and the Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru co-operation agreement. We want to see the following changes implemented, which would enhance participatory democracy at a local level and transfer the balance of power away from wealthy landowners to ensure that people across Wales have a greater ability to shape their local areas.  

  1. The Welsh Government should establish a commission to stimulate innovative thinking on community ownership of land and assets in Wales (including research and recommendations on tax, valuing land, capturing value, land data/information)
  2. The Commission should inform the development of new Community Empowerment and Ownership legislation, to bring Wales into line with Scotland and England.
  3. The Welsh Government should establish a Revolving Loan fund for community-led housing projects to grow the number of affordable community-led housing projects. 
  4. The Welsh Government should develop a Community Wealth Fund using dormant assets that would invest long term in places that need it most and support communities to develop social infrastructure. 
  5. The Welsh Government should strengthen current policy guidance on community-led housing and utilise existing powers to make it easier for projects to progress (for instance by requiring Local Authorities to develop supplementary planning guidance for community-led housing).

Improving community ownership rights could be transformative for people in Wales, allowing communities take control of their housing situations and provide the affordable homes that they really want and need. 

Clearly, community ownership of land is a multi-faceted issue and there is strong support across several different sectors to improve communities’ rights to land access in Wales. It is not just the housing sector that could benefit, but it could also grow the community energy, farming and food production sectors, as well as helping to protect the natural environment, and enabling the revitalisation of dilapidated assets and buildings in our cities, towns, and villages.  We will continue to work with partners interested in this agenda to ensure that any changes made meet the needs of communities across Wales. 

It is time to kick off the discussions in Wales about community ownership of land and for communities across Wales to have greater influence in the development of affordable housing where they live. 

We’ll be discussing the issues of community ownership of land and assets at the monthly community-led housing network on Thursday 27th Jan (12:00-13:30). For information about attending, please contact me on casey.edwards@wales.coop  

Casey Edwards is Community-led Housing Advisor at the Wales Co-operative Centre.

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