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Martin Large: Developing exemplar models for creating common wealth

martin-mugshotMartin Large’s aim is to ‘reclaim our common wealth’ and his work has enabled the development of community-owned land and housing. Here he talks through the emerging models and argues for tri-sectoral partnerships to preserve and steward our commons. 

Where did your ideas for Common Wealth come from? I have a Yorkshire dales hill farmer’s background. My father was a tenant farmer, and local farmers often worked co-operatively, sharing work and resources. My family is from the north east and was involved in the whole fabric of mutual and friendly societies, so common wealth was in my DNA. Then we had the long nightmare of neo-liberal capitalism, starting with Thatcher in 1979 and accelerating in the 90s. We brought up our four children in Stroud, Gloucestershire. When Tescopoly hit in the early 90’s, Stroud town centre became run–down with empty shops, often owned by absentee property speculators.  So, after a Stroud community planning process in the mid 90s, we founded Stroud Common Wealth.  The aims are community asset development and enabling co-ops and social enterprise development.  The name was a reference to the 1640’s commonwealth of diggers, levellers, Quakers and dreamers. Think of Gerard Winstanley who on St Georges Hill on May 1st 1649, said, ‘The earth shall be a common treasury for us all!’ Stroud Common Wealth’s first project was the purchase and successful development of a theatre, called The Space. We then developed a social enterprise development centre called The Exchange, after Robert Owen.

You helped start some of the first community land trusts in the UK. How did that come about? I got a scholarship to research Community Land Trusts (CLTs) in the US.  Bob Paterson of the University of Salford Community Finance Solutions and Pat Conaty of Nef joined me for the US CLT networks annual Community Land Trust conference at Syracuse. Led by Bob, we then ran a Capturing Value for Communities action research project for the Countryside Commission, and then the CLT National Demonstration Projects. However, I believe that it’s good practice to pilot exemplars in your own community as well as work on the national level. So, with Gloucestershire Council help, we founded Gloucestershire Land for People as a CLT in 2005 and then started to develop the Cashes Green hospital site in Stroud. Our original vision of permanently affordable mutual home ownership, community facilities and allotments to be developed in partnership with David Rodgers of CDS Co-operatives was turned down personally by the then housing minister Yvette Cooper. It may have been that the Treasury wanted more money for the land, or that New Labour and senior civil servants didn’t understand co-operatives. Gloucestershire Land for People is now developing the Cashes Green site as a CLT in a joint venture between Kevin McCloud’s company Haboakus and the Green Square Group.

You then moved into land-based farming projects and your first project brought community shares issues into the spotlight. I was asked to do a CLT action research farmland project to try to secure land for Community Supported Agriculture and our first project was Fordhall Farm at Market Drayton in Shropshire, an organic farm which was being sold off by the estate. Charlotte and Ben Hollins, who were farm tenants and were only 21 and 19 at the time, asked for our help. We gave technical assistance and facilitated engagement for saving the farm from 2004-6.  Charlotte is a superb communicator and Ben is a committed farmer, and their team enabled the community to get behind putting Fordhall Farm into a trust.  The structure for participation, involvement and investment we chose was a Community Benefit Society (CBS) which we got exempt charity status for. We ended up raising over £800,000 with 8500 members and now Fordhall is a beacon for good food, farming, courses, festivals and community asset trusteeship. Fordhall was a breakthrough in terms of reinventing co-operative shares. At that time, Co-operatives UK was ‘quiet’ about promoting community shares. Maybe they thought that real coops were worker coops, rather than community benefit societies?  Fordhall Community Land Initiative was the only successful community share offer in 2005-6. However, community share issues by CBSs, for example in the land, pub, food and renewable energy areas, have now really taken off.  Good practice is being strengthened by the Community Shares Unit of Co-operatives UK, which Jim Brown has set up in collaboration with government. One of my key learning points from this was that CLTs were too influenced by traditional housing associations’ practice of going to banks for loans. Originally housing associations and building societies used to go directly to their localities to raise money. In the nineteenth century the coop movement was based on this. We have now reinvented this model of community investment and made it easy for others to do.

Your latest community investment project is the Biodynamic Land Trust. I was astonished to be offered £1m to set up a Biodynamic Land Trust. Biodynamic agriculture is a deep green, holistic way of enhancing soil fertility. Biodynamic farms, such as Tablehurst Community Farm in Sussex, are often centres for rural renewal, as well as growing good food. We set up the Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) in November 2011. We use community share offers, loans and gifts to complement our seed capital. We’ve helped Tablehurst Community Farm with land. Each time we buy land we do a share offer in a locality with the local community which wants to secure the land. We have partnered with Stockwood Community Benefit Society, near Redditch to help put their farm into trusteeship. This is an innovative project because the Stockwood Business Park has a profitable rental income stream of around £200,000 p.a. that will enable interest to be paid on shares. The whole idea of the Biodynamic Land Trust is to create exemplar projects to shift values around food, farming and trusteeship, treating land as commons and rights rather than a commodity. As Winston Churchill once said in 1909, we have a ‘vicious land system.’  Land is a commons not a monopoly. If we let land, people and capital become commodities this will destroy society.

How can the idea of Common Wealth be expanded? The vision of common wealth goes back to John Stuart Mill and his vision formed the original articles for the antecedent to CBS – the Industrial and Provident Society.  He had a vision for a co-operative common wealth. Common wealth draws on traditional cooperative values – solidarity, education, concern for community, equal opportunities and member economic participation. It’s one of our finest human centred, even spiritual traditions. The question is how can we hold land assets and capital for long term community benefit and make it available for groups and individuals for enterprise? So using the asset locked CBS structure for holding capital property and land is one answer. We have started projects in the energy field such as Ecodynamic CBS for investing in renewables, and reinvesting in land, food, training and energy in partnership with the BDLT.  Our first wind turbine in Cornwall will provide renewably generated electricity and a projected return of 5% for members. Secondly, how can we enable young people to engage with developing common wealth forms for the emerging social economy?  We need younger people with confidence, competence and vision.

How optimistic are you that common wealth can expand? We have a huge task on our hands. We handed £1.4tn to the banks in 2007-9 with no quid pro quo. New Labour and the Tories have inflated land and house prices and created a zombie property economy. There’s a massive shift of common wealth to the 0.001 % elite, for example huge property tax breaks for the wealthy. One key blockage is the lack of knowledge about basic economics, social business and co-ops. For example, before 1974 house and land prices were stable, it’s only since then that a policy framework has been created enabling property bubbles and busts. So, Stroud Common Wealth is running a co-op housing event in Stroud to equip local people with the skills and contacts to set up co-ops. The council wants to build new council houses but they will be privatised eventually with the right to buy. That won’t happen if we create housing co-ops and CLTs as partners with the council. The problem with the public sector is that corporatocray and bankocracy have captured large areas of the state. The public sector used to be a safe haven for common property – think of  county farm estates, land, public buildings, roads, water, utilities – but under the neo-liberal market ideology they are selling our family silver. Government has been captured by an ideology that sees society as a  ‘market’.  Land and property are sadly not now safe in statutory hands. When land, people and capital are turned into commodities you destroy society.  What protects us from that is a vibrant, creative civil society. Remember the revolt against the selling off of our forests? Just think that over 60% of software is now open source, it’s been given by people like Linus Torvalds who gave Linux software to us all as common wealth!

What’s your ‘tripolar’ view of society? My societal map is threefold – not just a  ‘state, ‘or ‘market’, but a dynamic of political, economic and cultural spaces with government, business and civil society as the agents. We are both citizens, economic actors (producers, distributors and consumers) and individuals. One ‘common wealth’ task for civil society is to work in partnership with government and with business to preserve and steward our commons. We need a partnership between the three sectors so that one area is not allowed to dominate. I speak in my book [Common Wealth] about Roz Tennyson of the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Foundation who has developed tri-sectoral partnerships since the 90s globally. This dynamic tri-sectoral view of society, comprised of civil society, state and business, is emerging all over the world as a way of working. However, I think the ideological blinkers are so strong in the UK that government and business don’t like the idea of sharing power, of partnering, with civil society as the third sector. For example, David Cameron’s idea of Big Society might have worked if civil society organisations had been resourced to become an autonomous partner. But in contrast, there are really good stories of trisectoral working. For example, Redditch Borough Council recognized that their housing task was about working with a social business partner, Accord Housing Association of West Bromwich to help deliver a housing strategy through Redditch Co-operative Homes, where civil society based tenant co-operatives self-manage their housing. And when the feudal, often offshore, tax-avoiding utilities become unviable with market failure, the thinking and tools are in place to reclaim our water, energy, transport as mutuals so we can steward our common wealth wisely for present and future generations.

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Fiona Cooper
Fiona Cooper
10 years ago

Very interesting article Martin. I’ve just been pointed to it by Clare in response to my comment on this thread http://newstartmag.co.uk/your-blogs/indignation-is-not-enough-time-for-action-to-address-social-and-economic-inequality/. I fully agree that co-operative ownership can be a great response. I live in Slaithwaite (not a million miles from your roots) and here we have a workers co-operative bakery http://www.thehandmadebakery.coop and a greengrocers which the community took over when it was about to go bankrupt http://www.slaithwaite.coop/ -both are well known nationally. HOWEVER, we are now faced with most (nearly all) of the remaining land in the villages (and indeed the valley) being owned by the families of the original mill owners or other big companies and pension funds. Mostly the mills are now unused and falling into dereliction. The owners have been approached on numerous occasions to sell to the community or to private individuals and they seem to have little interest in selling to anyone. There are two current exceptions to this, one big mill development which will be for the profit of the mill owner but will hopefully provide jobs in the community and which the community is largely pro and a second development of a beautiful site between a mill pond and the river with a newer mill building on it (of no architectural merit) which has just had planning permission filed for it for an Aldi ….This development is currently splitting the community. We are going to have to think very creatively to find the millions required to take on any land around here. I may well be in touch 😉

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