What England’s first city-regional Land Commission means for Liverpool

Posted on: 3 November 2020 by Matt Thompson in Blog

In this blog, Matt Thompson, a Leverhulme research fellow at the Heseltine Institute and member of Liverpool City Region's Land Commission, places the work of the recently convened commission in historical context and outlines its remit and role.

In September 2020, the inaugural meeting of the country’s first city-regional Land Commission was convened in Liverpool — well, virtually at least. Facilitated by the Manchester-based think-and-do-tank, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), this initiative gathers together a dozen experts on democratic land reform, from activists involved locally in community land trusts, makerspaces and social enterprise incubation to academics such as myself and national planning policy reformists and international campaigners for the commons. This is not a Commission in the conventional sense – where existing policies are pored over and every parcel of land meticulously documented – but rather a kind of ‘pop-up think tank’, as CLES have likened it. Commissioned by Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram to come up with “imaginative thinking” for “radical recommendations” of “how to make the best use of publicly-owned land to make this the fairest and most socially inclusive city region in the country”, the Commission promises to produce action-oriented ideas for concrete projects across the city-region — practical proposals to be implemented rather than generic suggestions merely endorsed. It is intended to influence land use policy within the Liverpool City Region, at both the Combined Authority and constituent local authority level, but aspirations amongst its members are for shifting the national and even international debate on how we treat land as property — from something thought of as legally owned, as in the Roman sense of ‘dominion’ so tightly bound up with slavery and imperialism, towards thinking of it as a gift of nature to be governed through trust and stewardship.

That Liverpool is host to the UK’s first city-regional Land Commission of this kind is apposite. In a city quite literally built on the riches stolen from the forced labour of human others, through their enslavement as forms of property, to be bought and sold just like land still is today, the Land Commission presents an important opportunity to challenge the colonial-capitalist foundations of property ownership and the illicit wealth it generates. Having suffered devastating economic decline and mass unemployment and losing half its population in the second half of the twentieth century, Liverpool has also been profoundly shaped by extraordinary experimentation in radical alternatives to its maritime-anchored slavery-enriched colonial-capitalist legacy. For instance, in the 1970s, the city generated one of the country’s largest, most democratic and imaginative housing cooperative and community development trust movements – part of Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives to public housing — with around 50 co-ops still owning land in common today. This is a strong foundation for the Land Commission to build upon.

Yet since the 1980s — following Thatcher’s defeat of the Militant-led Council’s project of municipal socialism — Liverpool has fallen in step with neoliberal orthodoxy, the only game in town. The city has been pretty successful at playing the so-called ‘regeneration game’ — attracting millions in EU and state grant funding and global capital investment, with glitzy plans for the north docks enterprise zone dubbed in the press Shanghai on the Mersey. Liverpool’s iconic Liver Building may well have once inspired the architecture of the Bund (Shanghai’s Waitan district) but capital and control increasingly flows the other way. This leaves Liverpool vulnerable to the vagaries of capricious global markets. Moreover, although successfully revitalising the city centre, this bankrupt growth model has proven completely incapable of resolving enduring inequalities and deprivation in the inner city and metropolitan periphery. An alternative is now taking shape in the form of community-led initiatives playing with the rules of the game to enact more transformative local economic development, notably through taking land into common ownership.

Amongst the most inspiring projects are Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT), Homebaked CLT, The Beautiful Ideas Co., Baltic Creative and Make Liverpool. These initiatives are all either Community Interest Companies or Community Benefit Companies with a legal asset lock to ensure the community retains all surpluses and ownership of all assets, governed democratically through participatory processes. Amongst those on the Land Commission are some of the leading activists and practitioners involved in these projects. One challenge for the Commission is how to enable the flourishing of similar projects on publicly-owned land across the Liverpool City Region, working closely with common associations through public-common partnerships — a glorious subversion of the public-private partnership model that has dominated the regeneration game.

For the past several years, I’ve been working with a collective of researchers at the University of Liverpool’s Heseltine Institute, collaborating closely with activists and practitioners across the city-region, to promote the benefits of a different approach to local economic development, one exemplified by the social and solidarity economy and rooted in common ownership of land and assets. Our research into the scale, scope and value of the city-region’s social economy and on an alternative city-regional industrial strategy, oriented towards community wealth building, aimed to uncover the extent of economically radical activity and increase its political visibility for greater policy support. In publishing our findings in 2017 we recommended the establishment of a city-regional Land Commission. Seeing that taken up by the Metro Mayor is a promising sign that the governance culture is beginning to shift. Indeed, a tentative entrepreneurial municipalism is potentially emerging in which the local state takes a more interventionist role in steering the local economy in more democratic and equitable directions.

With the latest radical thinking around public-common partnerships, community land trusts, and other forms of democratic ownership already on the table, hopes for the Land Commission are running high. But commissioners are also realistic, if not yet cynical, about political limits. Austerity still determines how local authorities divest of their assets — incentivised to sell them off in order to plug gaps in funding for statutory services — while neoliberalism still maintains its grip on policy thinking. The question remains how far the Land Commission can act to loosen that grip? Moreover, is this going to be any more than a tokenistic gesture — the self-proclaimed “first” Land Commission of its kind — to advance a boosterist agenda of place branding? How novel really is this?

Writing in The New Enclosure, his penetrating audit of the systematic privatisation of public land in Britain, Brett Christophers documents previous attempts at establishing a Land Commission. The most radical came in 1967, when Labour established a central-government Land Commission to, in Anthony Crosland’s words, “take into public ownership, by agreement or compulsory purchase, any land needed for development” (page 111). This radical move towards nationalising all development land followed the seminal reforms of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which effectively nationalised the development rights to build on land. The Act also introduced the ‘betterment levy’, which, until its abolishment by the Tories in 1953, taxed 100% of the increase in land value arising through development permission. If the Liverpool City Region Land Commission is to meet the expectations of commissioners and wider publics, these are the kinds of ambitious initiatives — capturing surpluses of private development for public and community benefit — it should seek to make politically possible.

In 2014 and 2015, very different sorts of land commissions were established in Greater Manchester and Greater London, at the behest of Whitehall, to bring together public sector owners across these city-regions to collate a combined register of assets — “a digital Domesday Book of surplus brownfield land” (page 199) — in order to facilitate land disposal to the private sector. They proved inept, partly due to neoliberal exhaustion but partly because the damage had already been done. Christophers calculates that since Thatcher came to power in 1979, half of all public land and assets have been sold off into private hands — valued at over £400 billion and representing 10% of the total British land mass! Ambitions for the potential of the Liverpool City Region Land Commission must be tempered by this depressing reality.

Most recently, the Scottish Land Commission was set up in 2017 in order to “promote a stronger relationship between the people and the land” on the basis of “the idea of land for the many and not just for the few” — representing, as Christophers remarks, a “radical ideological break from Scotland’s feudalistic land history” (page 346). Liverpool’s commission takes its inspiration from Scotland, with a representative from the Scottish commission amongst its members. Commenting on its future prospects, Christophers could just as easily be writing about Liverpool: “Of course, these may ultimately prove to be empty words; it remains to be seen whether the Commission can deliver on its promises. But at least there is a Commission, a body with a bold vision and the promise of change” (page 346).

At its boldest, then, the vision of the Liverpool City Region Land Commission is about using the platform provided by the political and media interest in its novel establishment to challenge the very discourse of ownership and property itself. Many commissioners are raising important issues about how we might advance reparations and spatial justice and learn from Black and non-western perspectives on land stewardship — as an alternative to ownership. The challenge ahead lies in how to bring this vital vision into coherent conversation with the more immediate, pragmatic task of identifying the sites still publicly-owned across the city-region and the legal mechanisms and common ownership models that could be utilised — within the political constraints set by central-local state relations, austerity, devolution and planning reform — to democratise decision-making over land use and support the expansion of the urban commons.

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