Trust in the community

Demos has always been interested in power. And not just in the conventional way that almost everyone is interested in power – we’ve investigated how power works, looked for ways of more equally distributing power throughout society and promoted giving people more power over their lives.

As you can learn from our Power video (one from the archive), power is not just vested in the traditional political institutions. The march of economic globalisation has reduced the power of national political institutions, and made our interactions with economic institutions all the more important.

These are everyday interactions, from our working conditions, to our experiences as consumers, to the wider impact that businesses have on society through training, the environment, and other externalities. And the power that we exert or feel exerted on us through these interactions is increasingly significant.

Hand-in-hand with globalisation has been a trend towards centralisation, with economic institutions tending to become more distant from the communities they serve. An example given by Lord Glasman is the demutualisation of the regional building societies following deregulation in 1986, and their subsequent merging with the bigger banks – which he sees as a radical centralisation of power.

This is why we at Demos have renewed our interest in economic institutions, especially those that work towards the community’s benefit.

We’re currently researching models of local banking, and considering options for policy makers in fostering a return to relationship banking. We’re investigating community supermarkets, and the role that they can play in reducing food poverty in a local area. We’re also keen to explore the principle of community benefit or ownership as they apply to other markets, including energy.

But perhaps one of the most important of these is land. As the ONS Wealth and Assets surveyrecently revealed, property inequality is still at very high levels, with a Gini coefficient of 0.64. The wider question of who owns Britain’s land is actually surprisingly difficult to answer, as a 2010 Country Life investigation uncovered: though it did estimate that at least a third of land is still in the hands of aristocrats and traditional landed gentry.

The history of land ownership is a curious one, recently explored by Andro Linklater in Owning the Earth. The story of the Norman Conquest, the enclosures and Empire in developing our system of land ownership is expertly told in the book, but is all the same reasonably familiar.

A lesser-known, more recent and more optimistic tale is that of land trusts. As befits a community institution, there is huge diversity in the type of organisation that fits into this definition, but essential features are: they act in the interest of the community, they are non-profit, and, uniquely, they own land in the local area.

The Westway Trust has a strong claim to be the oldest such trust in the country. It came about through protests against the construction of the A40 – or Westway – through North Kensington in the mid-1960s. The area, already struggling with poverty, overcrowding and housing decay, had literally been cut in two.

Following the development, 23 acres of land were left derelict underneath the motorway – and it was this land was viewed as an opportunity by local groups who campaigned for it to be returned to the community. Four years later, the Trust was duly set up in partnership with the local council, with the land held in trust to ensure the involvement of local people in determining its use.

I visited the Trust and its land under the Westway last week, as part of a walk organised byFuture of London. I saw plenty of good examples of supported community enterprise and projects to improve the health and education outcomes of the local population.

Health inequality is an intractable social problem, which has proved very difficult to tackle at a national level. The Trust runs the Kensington and Chelsea Health Trainer Service to address this problem in its own community, with results that already exceed the national average: 80 per cent of those using the service achieved their health goals and 84 per cent of these came from the two most deprived quintiles.

They are also responding to the educational demands of the community, through a programme of adult education that has a particular focus on learning English, and the option of starting the course a level below that of most language colleges. This is crucial both for the individuals’ life chances, but also for stronger societal integration, as a Demos project is currently investigating.

Perhaps most importantly, the Trust also plays a leading role in supporting charities and businesses in the local area, awarding £394,000 in grants to local charities in the last year and supporting local businesses through management and subsidised rents.

This is just one example of a phenomenon continuing to grow across the UK – and in London too, where land is especially at a premium. Coin Street Community Builders is another example. Based on the South Bank, it has been a key player in the development of the local area, including the world-famous Thames Path.

The embryonic East London Community Land Trust is also one to watch, with its explicit focus on improving provision of affordable housing in the area, and its origins in the community organising of Citizens UK.

This shows the difference that community ownership can make. Land trusts and similar models could be the real passing down of power that localists have been looking for – and could also be a way of getting the community engaged and in favour of development.

The questions for policy makers, and in particular, local authorities are: how effective are land trusts in creating economic and social value in the local area? How do you make sure trusts have legitimacy: that the local community are engaged in decision-making and are taking part in all the trust can offer?

And if they have a positive impact and have local legitimacy, how can the model be spread more widely?