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Transition Towns and Beyond: The Ecological Land Co-operative

James Dennis, Greenham Reach resident ELC director Oli Rodker, Marcus Tribe and Dingo the dog begin work at Greenham Reach.

The Transition movement is a loose network of thousands of communities (ranging from favelas in Brazil to Japanese towns; from rural villages in England to Transition Los Angeles) unified in their drive to devise and implement positive solutions that build local resilience and reduce fossil fuel dependency. Transition acts on the understanding expressed by one of its key influences, the late Dr. David Fleming:

“Localization stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative.”

The practical manifestations of this relocalization drive are as diverse as the communities that give birth to them−ranging from food cooperatives, local currencies, skill-sharing sessions and renewable energy projects to Transition Universities, arts projects, occupations of unused buildings and land, and ambitious programs for reducing the energy demand of entire regions, often endorsed by local government.

This last example may seem less “local,” but Transition has had to grapple with the fact that many of the threats to our collective future are of a national or global nature, leaving local solutions struggling to achieve significant impact. Importantly, though, this does not mean that we should give up on the small-scale. Here Dr. Fleming again provides an important principle: “Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions–they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.”

This reflects the fact that large-scale solutions face an inherent problem of their own–that of disconnectedness. For example, take climate change: while it is tempting to think of hard-won political agreement on a tightening global cap on emissions as a solution, such a cap would be meaningless without on-the-ground solutions at the local and individual levels. This is, after all, where those emissions are generated. The true large-scale challenge lies not in the essential process of agreeing a sufficiently tight cap, but in developing frameworks to support and enable the diverse local solutions that could allow us to thrive within this limit. If we fail at this, the pressure to loosen or abandon any cap will become irresistible; we can imagine the refrain, “enough talk of future generations, my children are hungry today.”

Over my seven years of involvement with Transition Towns in the UK, one particular large-scale problem that has come up repeatedly is that of land access. Food is an issue that galvanizes almost all Transition communities, but many of the classic Transition activities (e.g., the Landshare idea–connecting those who want to grow with those who have some spare land) are essentially ways of working around the lack of available growing space. There has been a clear necessity for some form of large-scale framework that could defend the rights of communities to develop and sustain their own small-scale solutions to feeding their localities, using established methodologies such as agroecology and permaculture.

Accordingly, I was rather excited when, in 2011, I discovered the fledgling Ecological Land Co-operative: a small team working on a model for reclaiming land from industrialized agriculture. I quickly got involved, and was elected as a director in the summer of 2012. But first, some context.

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James Dennis, Greenham Reach resident A collective effort as the Greenham Reach barn (to be shared between the three plots) is constructed.

Land in the UK

Here in the UK, nearly half of the land is owned by just 40,000 people (0.06% of the population). Such land ownership by the few tends to favour uniform, large-scale, mechanised agriculture. Yet, in a country whose population has swelled by four million over the past decade, it is becoming ever harder to justify these practices, given that such farms produce far less food per acre than smaller holdings.

This reality may seem counter-intuitive–it is well-known that many smaller farms have been forced out of business due to being economically uncompetitive–but it is not a lack of productivity that causes small farms to suffer in our modern economy. Their first problem is that, although they can produce substantially more food per acre, the big farms can produce more of a given monoculture crop per acre, which suits the large-scale centralized buyers (i.e. supermarkets). Smallholders also face the economic challenge that their higher productivity per acre relies on higher employment. Just as the most productive parts of large farms famously tend to be the farmers’ gardens, where more time and attention is lavished on each plant amidst significant diversity, smallholdings rely on careful human attention, which can be a major expense. Large-scale mechanized farms, on the other hand, have echoed other industries in taking advantage of fuel prices over recent decades to replace human care with cheap fossil energy, standardization and monoculture. Yet, with finite fossil fuel supplies depleting and oil prices having tripled over the past decade, the balance is shifting.

Industrialised agriculture is a major contributor to climate destabilization, soil depletion, flood risk and many other problems, while smallholdings provide an ideal context for diverse, low-carbon, localized lifestyles that provide satisfying employment, a reliable, home-grown food supply (whilst cheap imports are also threatened by rising energy prices), and a desperately needed model for true sustainability that is in harmony with the local ecology. Meanwhile, UK agriculture is suffering from a lack of new blood–the average age of a UK farm holder is now 58 years old–since private farms are now generally far too large for would-be new farmers to afford.

It is fair to say, then, that productive smallholdings could represent a key response to many of our most pressing social, economic, and ecological problems. There is also a great appetite for the diverse lifestyles they can provide, commonly idealized as “the good life.” Yet, extortionate land prices and the intricate absurdities of the planning permission system have combined to make the simple aim of living and working on a piece of land seem an unattainable dream for most.

The Ecological Land Co-operative

It was in this context that the Eco Land Co-op emerged from energetic discussions in the spring of 2005 between members of Chapter 7, an ecological planning consultancy; Radical Routes, a co-operative network of co-operatives working for social change; Somerset Co-operative Services, a co-op development body; and UK farms and eco-communities like Landmatters, Lammas, Highbury Farm, and Five Penny Farm.

They were yearning for a vibrant, living countryside in which humans flourish amidst our cherished natural landscapes and biodiversity, with small land-based enterprises providing meaningful employment while allowing residents to be rooted in rural communities and play a crucial role in ensuring food and energy sovereignty. They were longing for a proliferation of happy rural lifestyles which could help maintain traditional skills and improve ecological literacy, while providing access to local, sustainable crafts and food, as well as educational opportunities for urban visitors.

And, as so often happens when such breathy, passionate desires are unleashed, a child was eventually born.

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 low-impact residences on site. 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 land purchases of new residents is then used to purchase another intensively managed site, where the same process can be implemented, allowing more land to be “rescued” from industrialised agriculture.

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Chris Smith, volunteer helper ELC directors Oli Rodker and Dr. Larch Maxey working on the barn.

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.

That was the idea−what about the reality?

After putting basic organizational structures in place, in 2009 we sold community shares to finance the £100,000 purchase of our first land, a 22-acre site on the Devon/Somerset border which we called Greenham Reach. We divided this land into three plots in order to allow each of the three “clustered” smallholdings the independence to build their own dwelling and manage their land as they wish, while also enjoying the benefits of a small community for tool-sharing, sociability, mutual support, etc. Accordingly, we also plan to provide some infrastructure to be shared between the three smallholdings−a timber barn with solar PV array and rainwater collection; improved access; a biological waste water treatment system, and internal pathways linking the plots.

Unfortunately, shortly after our land purchase, the setbacks began: first, in working with a planning agent who failed to submit valid planning applications on our behalf on three separate occasions. This episode set the project back by around a year.

Our original hopes to secure planning permission for the site before inviting applications from potential plotholders were also thwarted, as the District Council informed us that they wanted to see individual business plans from the prospective residents before they would consider granting permission. Accordingly, we advertized and went through a selection process in 2011, choosing applicants based on a number of criteria including their farming and horticultural experience, vision and plans for the land, experience of low-impact living, and connection with the locality.

Crowdfunding and community financing also allowed us to produce the Small is Successful report at that time, examining eight existing smallholdings with land-based businesses on ten acres or less. These documented examples demonstrate that economically viable and highly sustainable land-based livelihoods can be created on this scale, without any need for the direct subsidies on which the average English farm depends in order to be profitable, nor the research funding that currently pours into big agribusiness. The Research Council UK showcased Small is Successful as one of a hundred pieces of UK research “that will have a profound effect on our future,” and we were also invited to present our message to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Agroecology at the House of Commons, all of which helped support our case for the viability and importance of small-scale holdings.

Together with our new intended plotholders, we then submitted the full applications for the three plots at the end of 2011, this time doing it ourselves. The applications ran to over 400 pages of careful documentation, and more than sixty letters of support were submitted, including from experienced organic smallholders; local residents; the Transition Network and local Transition groups; the Soil Association; Sustrans; Colin Tudge’s Campaign for Real Farming; food policy professor Tim Lang and other academics; three MPs; and even the Scottish Crofting Federation. We also won recommendations for approval from both the local parish council and the planning officers who spent the best part of a year carefully going through our applications. A particularly heartening letter came from a planner with over 30 years’ experience, who described our work as “by some way the most carefully prepared applications for either an agricultural and/or low impact dwelling I have considered”.

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James Dennis, Greenham Reach residen. The completed barn (with 2x 10,000 litre rainwater collection tanks in background, which have since been installed).

Nonetheless, in an experience familiar to so many who have developed similar low-impact proposals, in June 2012 we attended a hearing to witness the rejection of our applications by the councillors on Mid Devon District Council’s planning committee. The vote for rejection was based on their vague statements that smallholdings are not “serious farming;” that the business plans–despite being carefully reviewed by a number of agricultural experts–“do not stack up;” and that off-grid renewables are “not practical” (in part because, apparently, “there isn’t enough wind on the site for PV”). The official reasons for refusal, drafted over a tea break after the vote was taken, reflected the principal concern about our application:

“If granted, based upon the supporting information submitted, the proposal would set a precedent for further dwellings, in association with permaculture and agroforestry proposals, in the countryside which the Local Planning Authority would find hard to resist.”

However, believing our case to be a strong one, we applied for an appeal inquiry (heard in January 2013) and received the inspector’s verdict in April 2013 with the news we had all been working and hoping for. She granted permission, indicating that she valued both the co-operative model we have developed and the research and monitoring of changes in biodiversity, soil carbon, and productivity which will be delivered alongside the smallholdings, while noting that the Council had failed to have regard for our “aims of addressing the need to reduce the negative impacts of conventional farming and globalised food distribution.” She added:

“I accept that the labour-intensive nature of such practices, necessary to ensure that a sustainable livelihood could be developed without resort to agro-chemicals and the reliance on fossil fuels, would require the worker’s presence and involvement to such an extent that the need could only be met by living on-site. …Provided that proposals for other dwellings associated with permaculture and agroforestry complied with the relevant policies, it is not clear to me why the Council would consider encouragement for them to be undesirable.”

What next?

All told, it has been a long struggle since those idealistic conversations seven years ago, but we are now closing in on the great satisfaction of having something simple and solid to show for our efforts: smallholders living and working on the land who would otherwise have been unable to do so. At the time of writing, it is only a fortnight since the inspector’s decision, but we are already working hard to get the smallholdings at Greenham Reach up-and-running as soon as possible.

The holdings there range from 5.5-8.5 acres and will be sold at £72,000 each, with planning permission to build agricultural dwellings. By way of comparison with the UK market rate, we currently see five acre holdings without planning permission advertised for about £100,000, and a five acre holding with a house going for £299,950 (while the annual net profit for organic smallholders is in the region of £14,000).

It is a small beginning, perhaps. But now that the model is proven, we fully intend to apply the invaluable experience we have gained to finding further suitable land to make available in future. Financially speaking, to date we have raised over £300,000 in total through share issues, loanstock, and crowdfunding, and a significantly larger fundraising drive is being prepared for 2014 in order to build our capacity and purchase our next two sites. Around a hundred people have expressed interest in taking on future ELC plots before our first has even been established. We dare to dream that this could be the start of a real solution to the thorny problem of land access in the UK, thus unleashing the collective genius of Transition communities and other growers to create the diverse, locally appropriate, small-scale solutions demanded by some of our society’s largest challenges.6

References

1. Fleming, D. Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It 390 (TLEC, UK, 2011).
2. Fleming, D. Energy and the Common Purpose 39 (TLEC, UK, 2007).
3. Landshare [online]. http://www.landshare.net.
4. Cahill, K. Who Owns Britain: The Hidden Facts Behind Land Ownership in the UK and Ireland (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2001).
5. Small is Successful. Ecological Land Co-operative [online] 45 (2011)(http://ecologicalland.coop/sites/ecologicalland.coop/files/Small_is_Succ...).
6. Ecological Land Co-operative [online]. http://ecologicalland.coop.

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