Buying land as a community group is increasingly becoming an attractive option for groups that wish to have more permanence and connection to place and a greater ability to make decisions about land use and access.
The Community Land Advisory Service have put together a fantastic overview paper looking at the implications of buying land, outlining ways to finance the purchase, the buying process, what you get and the additional costs involved. It also outlines the responsibilities of the landowner in the buying land process. You can download it here.
Why buy land? What are the pros and cons?
Some of the reasons you may wish to buy:
• It can feel different to ‘own’ land - it is a place to belong to & a greater sense of connection
• There is a greater feeling of independence & freedom
• Longer term security allows for investment of time & energy into longer-term projects, such as planting trees or erecting buildings.
• If bought outright there is no rent to pay.
• Buying land allows control of decisions about what land is used for and by whom. This is great for more alternative/pioneering forms of land use such as permaculture & agroecology.
• Buying land as a group can bring people together. It can take a lot of effort and shared responsibility to buy land so can really strengthen a group.
• Grant funders will often want long-term land security and longer tenancies, and so a group that owns land can be more attractive.
• Sources of income that are available for buying land may not be so for renting. For example crowd fundraising, certain grants, contributions from the public and others in a community may all be more likely if people are grouping together to buy land.
• Buying land means community groups will have a valuable asset that a group can then borrow against the value. A group could also generate an income from renting land.
• More than anything, buying land may mean more security and self determination for a community aiming to feed themselves.
Some of the reasons you may not:
• Cost! Land is becoming increasingly expensive, especially where compared to the cost of renting. If renting of a benevolent landowner, costs may be significantly cheaper. The value of land can be massively inflated also due to competition for development, making it prohibited for many grassroots groups.
• It can be quite difficult to find suitable land to buy. Factors such as size, location and topography, especially in relation to food growing, are important and finding suitable land can be challenging. Land is often not always advertised or easy to find out about.
• The group buying the land must be willing, and able, to take responsibility for some long term serious and complicated issues, such as protecting investors’ money and undertaking the legal duties of landowners.
• Failure by poorly run groups might diminish confidence in other community groups.
• Many groups and projects are often informal, grassroots and temporary and do not need to buy land.
• Groups need to be fairly solid, responsible and consistent to manage land over a long time. It can also be fairly difficult to move to another site if a group’s needs change.
• Buying land is often easier in areas of privilege. Raising funds in different areas will need awareness about class and access. ‘Owners’ and people who have not contributed may feel a hierarchy, even if access rights are the same.
• Buying land does carry financial risk. In some cases, people will risk their savings to buy land, for example when buying withdrawable shares. Without a solid plan there is also potential for conflect.
• There are up front costs to buying land that will not be recouped if a sale falls through, such as surveying.
• If appropriate ownership models are not established in the beginning there may be tax problems.
• Timing! Often there are very short windows of time from when land becomes available for purchase.
• Groups need to have access to appropriate skills e.g. Legal knowledge, accountancy, and finding the right mix of people with different skill sets can be challenging.
• Where a community purchases land from a public body (e.g. local authority) this can be a form of privatisation, resulting in the land effectively being less accessible; however, where a community group purchases land from a private owner, this makes the land more accessible.
• We can not automatically assume that community land ownership will result in the land being well cared for e.g. if a group purchases 20acres without knowledge/ experience of how to manage it. Having a solid skill set and experience within a group around managing land is important.
Further resources & links
• Community Land Advisory Service
• Ecodynamic Community Benefit Society Ltd (linking energy and food projects)
• Biodynamic Land Trust
• Information on Community Shares
• Ecological Land Cooperative
• Soil Association Land Trust
• Wessex Community Assets
Inspiring case studies
• Stroud Woodland Cooperative
• Stroud CSA
• Whistlewood Common, Derbyshire