Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

London Citizens, the local branch of Citizens UK and the campaign group which led to the formation of London CLT (photo: London CLT).

Land for the people: the story of community land trusts

On Common Ground is a collection of essays about community land trusts (CLTs). Its many voices range from academics to professional organisers and community activists. Together, they tell stories which explain what CLTs are, how they work and why they matter. Shelley Feldman, herself a member and employee of the Heart of Hastings CLT, found the book a fascinating and inspiring read.

The CLT movement came out the civil rights movement in North America, as an answer to social and housing problems faced by African-American communities there. Widely hailed as the first ever CLT, New Communities Inc. was “established in 1969 by African-American activists who had led the struggle for voting rights and racial equality in Albany, Georgia,” writes John Emmeus Davis.

He goes on to explain that the New Communities pioneers realised that land ownership was key to political and economic independence, and while individual ownership was risky and economically unobtainable, communal ownership could offer collective security for family homes and farm land.

New Communities was a grassroots, direct action movement, and a result of community organising, which remains an essential part of the CLT movement today.

All over the world

There are now CLTs all over the world, with over 260 in North America, 300 and growing in the United Kingdom, and a handful in mainland Europe, Australia and South America. Community activists in Asia and Africa are looking at the model for their own communities. On Common Ground demonstrates how they are a fundamental and ever evolving control against gentrification and displacement, and of growing interest to law-makers and think-tanks, but remain fundamentally a people’s movement.

What is a CLT? Practitioners and rule-makers have struggled to agree a single definition. The term first found its way into law in England in the 2008 Housing and Regeneration Act, (the full extract can be found in the chapter on “CLT Origins and Evolution in England”) but it is a continual discourse.

In a few words:

  • CLTS believe that the value of land is its current use, not future profit, and that people who use the land should have a stake in it and a say in how it is used.
  • Most CLTs use their land for good, secure and affordable homes plus work and social (community building) space.
  • CLTs legally cannot sell their land for a profit, so land and buildings stay in the community, forever.

The stories from CLTs around the world throughout the book explain what a the CLT movement is in a way a dry definition can’t. In different places, different languages and cultures understand, explain and use the ideas to suit their own communities. Ghent CLT in Belgium, for example, speaks about “anti speculation formula”, what in North America and England we would call an “asset lock” (measures to ensure that the land, once in community ownership, stays affordable in for future users).

Common threads throughout:

  • Gentrification causes displacement
  • It’s wrong for public subsidy to subsidise “for profit” housing
  • Community organising is integral to the CLT movement – it is “done by”, not “for”.
  • For people to thrive, we need good homes, good work, recreational space. In the space between these elements comes community.

Legacy campaign

My favorite section by London CLT (Chapter 20) beautifully covers most of these threads, while telling the story of the community campaign to make affordable, user controlled housing a legacy of the 2012 London Olympics, in Stratford, East London.

In 2005, as London was putting in its bid for the 2012 Olympics, members of what is now known as Citizens UK saw opportunities and started a campaign that led to “permanently affordable homes for local people” being adopted by the Olympic bid committee.

Sir Sebastian Coe and Mayor Ken Livingstone signed up, but, once the games were awarded, the newly formed Olympics delivery committee tried to back out, saying they couldn’t be held to an agreement that came before they existed. Years of intense campaigning followed.

This included a ‘Citizens March’ on City Hall, during which Livingstone agreed to gift a small piece of land to be used for a pilot affordable housing scheme. The land promised was not the mayor’s to give, but that was just another hurdle the campaigners overcame, and the new London CLT eventually acquired a site in nearby Mile End.

Affordable homes

The Olympics in 2012 were a great success, but less well known is the legacy that, five years later, in 2017, London CLT handed over the keys to their first affordable homes. Dave Smith, who wrote this chapter, tells the story so well, and I think this quote sums up his exciting account: “Compromise on everything except your principles and winning”.

On Common Ground is a well chosen collection, some parts felt less readable than others, but there is so much in it, it’s not a problem. The short chapter on “bio ethics” was a bit of a challenge, but there is a justification for trying to place an ethical framework around the movement, and overall it was a reasonable philosophical argument, worth including.

Summing up the experience and what you might take away from it: there is something about the CLT movement that reaches under the skin – it’s a story of land justice, self-determination, community activism. On Common Ground tells that story well, and is a great place to start or to develop your understanding.


On Common Ground, International Perspectives on the Community Land Trust Editors: John Emmeus Davis, Line Algoed, María E Hermández-Torrales. Published by Terra Nostra (Our Earth) Press, 2020.

The book can be ordered from Printed Matter or Bookbusters, both in Queens Road.



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Posted 11:03 Wednesday, Aug 12, 2020 In: Grassroots

1 Comment

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  1. Laurence Keeley

    May i invite you to visit my website at see the first two presentations on Housing Care & Pensions.
    Laurence Keeley.

    Comment by Laurence Keeley — Saturday, Aug 15, 2020 @ 08:43

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