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A Magazine for Sheffield

Is it time to reclaim Sheffield’s city centre for the common good?

Sheffield Community Land Trust aims to turn the extractive and harmful models of land ownership in our city on their head. James Harrington tells us about the group's efforts to bring a city centre property into community ownership.

Sheffield Community Land Trust event

An SCLT event at Union St.

Sheffield Community Land Trust

I could turn round to you and say, 'It's going to be this, this and this,' but that's not community-led development.

James Harrington, board member of Sheffield Community Land Trust, architectural designer and director of Studio Polpo, is explaining how he hopes a new project will transform the way communities in Sheffield relate to the land and the built environment around them.

“I think we’re getting to that point now where we can start to say, ‘We are doing this many affordable homes, and this is what we mean by affordable homes’. But we want more people to join as members and shaping the project and these decisions. So at the moment a lot of it’s just putting the pieces in place to facilitate that process, as much as anything.”

Community organisation Sheffield Community Land Trust (CLT) aims to turn the extractive and harmful models of land ownership and development in the city on their head.

Developed in the United States in the 1970s, the CLT model sees member-led organisations tied to a particular place buy up land in that area to develop it for community good on a not-for-profit basis. Depending on the needs of the community, this could mean anything from affordable housing to green space or commercial premises for social enterprises and independent businesses.

Crucially, CLTs also take land out of the system of commercial property speculation in perpetuity, safeguarding it for community use in cities which have seen many long-term residents priced out.

Heart beat

In Sheffield, our own CLT began to form in 2017 after architects, activists, business owners and residents looked at what was happening in the city centre, particularly the ‘Heart of the City II’ project, and began to question whether a process led by corporate retail chains and big business would really lead to a thriving urban environment.

“There was a lack of community-led and community-centred aspects to that development,” says Harrington, speaking how Heart of the City inspired them to start work on the CLT. “At that initial stage it was a lot of campaigning, researching, events and advocating for this idea.”

The pandemic slowed down work on the project, but after lockdown – which highlighted the importance of communities having agency over the built environment around them – the project started to pick up momentum and the CLT entered discussions with the South Yorkshire Mayor’s office.

“Where we got to is that they’ve ended up supporting and part-funding a pilot project of ours where we’re looking to bring underused [Sheffield] city centre buildings into community ownership, to provide housing but also other kinds of spaces and facilities that are valued by the community.”

For a one-off fee of £2, anyone living in the city can become a member of Sheffield CLT and help shape the future direction of the organisation as well as the exact nature of the city centre pilot project, which in the last few months has moved significantly closer to reality.

Frequently sited

As well as ongoing support from the mayor's office, the project team are planning to fund the acquisition and renovation of their first city centre site through a mixture of grants, crowdfunding, loans, a community share offer and other financing routes.

“We’re just coming towards the end of the process of looking at city centre sites,” said Harrington, who was born in Watford and moved to Sheffield in 2010 to study architecture. “We’re now moving on to narrowing down the sites and then looking to acquire.”

The group are currently exploring two very different buildings, both within the inner ring-road. One is a mid-century light industrial building, that would involve a retrofit process within the relatively small existing structure, but also an element of new build. The other candidate is a Grade II-listed 19th century former school that would require the team to retain and enhance the fabric of the existing building.

“We want to cater to a range of different requirements and needs,” said Harrington, describing the assessment process which saw them look at a number of possible sites within or close to the inner ring-road. “We’re conscious that there’s a lot of families and other types of living situations that people want to live in in the city, rather than just small flats and student digs.”

As well as homes, a central part of the group’s plan is to offer out commercial and office space for organisations doing good work in the city, but who often struggle to find a home or secure tenure.

“We’re already talking to a number of organisations that are in the community, social and cultural sector because there’s some real issues with access to good quality, secure tenure, affordable spaces,” said Harrington. “That’s a really important component of what we’re setting out to do.”

Sheffield CLT flyer
Sheffield Community Land Trust

On land

Land, and its deeply unequal ownership and distribution, is rarely part of this country’s political conversation. But it’s fundamental to many of the systemic problems that we face collectively, from inequality, poverty and poor housing to an economy driven by collecting rent rather than producing anything socially useful.

According to researcher Guy Shrubsole, half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. An incredible 30% of land in England is still owned by the aristocracy and the landed gentry – more than six times the amount owned by all of the country’s homeowners combined.

In cities like Sheffield, much of the land and the buildings that sit on it, if not owned by the local council, belong to either overseas bodies or big land-holding companies in the UK. Neither have any incentive to steward land for the common good or to provide community facilities, beyond those which make a profit.

In some cases, commercial landlords who own tens of thousands of properties will keep them empty in the hope of persuading local authorities that they should be allowed to convert them into flats for rent, or will even forget that they own a particular property. All of this contributes to the emptying out of city centres across the country.

Land is relatively unique as a commodity because, as Mark Twain put it, they’re not making any more of it. There is therefore a strong moral case to return land, both rural and urban, to collective ownership, and then develop ways to use that land for public good – to create thriving places with community amenities that benefit everybody.

The 20th century way of doing this was for the state to buy up land on behalf of the population. Perhaps due to its relatively strong tradition of socialism at the start of the century, Sheffield quickly became one of the biggest landowning councils in the UK, buying up huge tracts of the city, some of which later became home to housing projects like Park Hill and Hyde Park. Sheffield is still the tenth biggest landowning council in England (out of 353) – Guy Shrubsole estimates it now owns around 26% of the city.

Commons people

But land owned by the state isn’t the same thing as land held in the commons.

National governments that are ideologically opposed to public ownership, and that are often made up of MPs who are landlords themselves or who act on behalf of big landowners, have found ways to pressure public bodies into selling off publicly owned land.

In January, Bloomberg reported that Rishi Sunak’s government were “quietly consulting” on a change in the rules to allow councils to sell off assets like land and property to fund frontline services. This would in effect force councils, many of which are teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, to flog public land to the highest bidder.

By contrast, the Community Land Trust model sees land and property safeguarded for the collective good. Only the members of the CLT can decide what to do with it and any decision to dispose of land or property has to be agreed collectively.

The model could be seen as a British interpretation of the Land Back movement across the United States and Mexico, which aims to establish inalienable and irreversible sovereignty for Indigenous people over their ancestral lands. At their heart, both movements are based around the principle that land should be owned collectively, and that it should be stewarded for the common good by the people and the communities who live there – not by big business or a centralised state.

Sheffield CLT flyer poster
Sheffield Community Land Trust

Battle of Hastings

A decade ago, the historic seaside town of Hastings on England’s south coast was in a spiral of decline, despite its proximity to London and picturesque sea front. Much of the town centre had shut up shop, creating a vicious cycle as local residents found even less reason to go there and more businesses went under.

That’s when local CLT Hastings Commons kicked off an ambitious programme to transform the town by bringing much of its urban core into community ownership, creating new high-quality spaces for independent traders, social enterprises and community groups, as well as homes for social rent.

Their model, which they describe as “community-led regeneration,” is simple but revolutionary. With each space they acquire, refurbish and let out, they use the income from the social rents they charge to tenants to buy the next building. Over the past ten years this has allowed them to acquire eleven sites, a not insignificant estate in a small town centre.

Hastings Commons’ portfolio of projects, all contained within three streets in a single town, contain a hugely diverse set of tenants, from artists' studios and gallery spaces to an artisan cheese shop, a ‘public living room’ for community use and recording studio Silk Moth Music.

The story of Hastings highlights the way capitalism often doesn’t make sense even under its own terms. Before Hastings Commons bought them up, most of the buildings in the town centre were owned by private developers, who either kept them empty or rented them out to high street brands that failed to attract people to town.

But the move towards community ownership in the town, and the arrival of independent traders across these eleven buildings, has seen Hastings start to thrive, bringing greater footfall to the town centre that benefits everyone – not only the small businesses and the CLT itself, but private property owners as well.

For everyone, forever

The example of Hastings Commons points towards a more ambitious role for CLTs than simply taking on a single site and turning it into something useful. The south coast town opens up the real possibility that an entire town centre – or at least the vast majority of it – could be acquired by the community, for the community, creating a multiplier effect in the local economy.

For Harrington, his hope for Sheffield CLT is that it will offer a model "that other local groups and initiatives can get involved with" in driving forward positive change in the city – whether in housing, health or other areas that require a permanent base.

“We know at the moment that there is a shifting of assets to the private sector,” he said. “I think community land trusts have never been more important really. State ownership is important, but community ownership is a really important part of that picture as well.”

He describes Hastings Commons as “a good illustration of how community land trusts can drive forward positive transformation of a city, in a way that is steered by the community’s demands and needs.”

“The benefit is retained locally. That’s a really key thing, when we can see not just in Sheffield but across the country wealth being extracted elsewhere. What we’re doing is offering the opportunity to build community wealth.”

At the end of the day, the rise of the community land trust model reminds us that, to adapt a quote from the late David Graeber, our current system of land, property, leaseholds, rent and development is one that we have made, and could just as easily re-make differently.

“I think it’s really important to remember that the current situation that we have with housing and land in the UK is something we shouldn’t take for granted – we shouldn’t assume that’s the norm,” said Harrington. “It’s not.”

Learn more

Sheffield Community Land Trust's event at this year's Festival of Debate – Community Ownership: What is Sheffield's Future? (16 May, Victoria Hall) – is sold out, but you can join the waiting list to be kept in the loop about spare tickets.

To learn more and join as a member, check out the SCLT website.

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