A Community Land Trust for the Olympic Park: Making it work

News that the first new neighbourhood in the Olympic Park could include a “pilot community land trust” scheme creating 80-100 homes is to be welcomed, albeit cautiously.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are popular with politicians as they offer a democratic model for empowering local communities and delivering affordable housing. Boris Johnson speaking in June 2009 at a London Assembly meeting describes CLTs as producing ‘a real sense of community… and, of course, they have been better looked after; the neighbourhood looks better and it is safer to live in’.

As non-profit, community organisations controlled and run by local people they provide a way to build housing that is genuinely and permanently affordable for local people, even in areas where house prices are high. According to the Community Land Trust Network a CLT ‘is a non-profit, community-based organisation run by volunteers that develops housing or other assets at permanently affordable levels for long-term community benefit.’ The Localism Bill has a strong focus on community asset transfer and advocates a community ‘right to build’, ‘right to reclaim land’, and a ‘right to take over community facilities’. Arguably CLTs, along with community development trusts, are seen by central and local government as the successor to regeneration partnerships that have lead NDCs and other major regeneration projects over the last two decades.

Despite being portrayed as a ‘silver bullet’ for tackling community housing problems, in practice, CLTs are neither risk free or simple to establish, especially in urban areas where to date, there are relatively few successful land trusts.

The Young Foundation has looked at the experiences of urban land trusts in the UK to understand some of the challenges and obstacles involved in creating a successful CLT. The review looks at a range of issues (set up costs, timing, capacity of volunteers and professionals, risks) and identifies 10 factors that influence the likelihood of success. These include:

  • Financial and practical support: Typically a CLT will incur costs of £2,500 for initial business planning and £100-250k for the development of a proposal, as well as requiring the support of a paid officer or organiser to handle initial development and ensure there is a viable, long-term business model. Strong political will is essential along with support from the public sector and local community stakeholders.
  • Timing: Experience shows the development of CLTs cannot be rushed, with community asset transfer projects generally requiring around five years to become fully established. Sufficient time is required for 12-24 months capacity building prior to setting up the organisation; and addressing negatives and objections at the very beginning, particularly in places where there communities are undefined or divided. This is particularly relevant in urban areas where research found that complexity of working in urban with a multitude of local interests make urban CLTs a more challenging enterprise.
  • Risks: include weak and poorly defined objectives; assets not being used to meet local needs; initial and longer term funding issues; and a shortage of skills or capacity to develop or manage assets.

Nevertheless, when CLTs are successful they have social as well as physical benefits since they act as a multiplier that boosts the social capital of people in the communities where they operate.

Based on these lessons it is clear that if implemented with care urban CLTs can succeed, though it is important that they are given the political will at all levels to stimulate their growth. Hopefully the Olympic Park CLT will become a successful test bed, helping to overcome Boris Johnson’s unmet manifesto pledge to create a ‘network’ of CLTs.

Post by Oliver Gregory, former Future Communities intern and MSc Urban Studies Student at University College London.