Learning from the Southwark Land Commission: implications for other authorities
Supported by PRD and We Made That, the London Borough of Southwark has taken the initiative to deliver London’s first Land Commission, a process that challenges the way the borough, London and the UK as a whole think about public property. Chris Paddock (PRD) and Holly Lewis (We Made That) reflect on supporting this process and consider the implications for other public bodies.
With the news that £15m of public sector assets have been sold off since 2010, we are at a critical juncture in thinking about the way the public sector uses its land. Whilst councils clearly need money for services, disposal of assets risks the loss of one of the most powerful levers the public sector has to deliver a positive impact. With the national policy that necessitates this and an economy where values are declining, something needs to change.
Why is land so important?
Everything happens somewhere: the production of goods and services, a rest, reflection, leisure, relationships—all human activity needs a place to host it. It follows, therefore, that those who control land have substantial power over how it is used and the impact on their fellow human beings.
Land is what connects place to economy and where value (whether this is commercial, economic or social) is realised. The problem is that we have lost sight of how we ascribe value to land and have forgotten that it is what happens in spaces that makes them special.
In the last thirty years, land and space in urban areas have come to be treated primarily as a financial asset. This has led to a position where the public sector (local authorities in particular) have been required to see land and buildings as a source of revenue rather than spaces where we can enable communities and businesses to thrive. Indeed, even the government’s own guidance (set out in The Treasury Green Book) on what constitutes economic success values ‘Land Value Uplift’ above wellbeing or even employment as its primary indicator of success for regeneration investments.
This approach has created a failing system which is not delivering the best for councils or for their residents. It is a classic example of a model of economic development that seeks growth first and redistribution later and has on the whole, failed to deliver the public benefits it promised.
Furthermore, in a period of seemingly endless crises, exacerbated by huge cuts to public and civil society funding, land and space is becoming increasingly important as a lever for realising public value. Local councils are increasingly required to think differently about how they deliver for their residents, businesses, and community organisations. How they use their land should be at the heart of this.
For some councils, this has meant monetising their land to create revenues to subsidise the delivery of services. Whilst this may seem like a reasonable response to austerity, it is a short-term transactional response which does not consider the broader value which the land in a place can provide.
At a time when there is a lot of ‘rethinking’ in the public sector, land is the perfect fulcrum for conversation.
What is a Land Commission?
A land commission is an evidence-based process, led by an independent group, which challenges how land and space is used to deliver public good. How this is delivered depends on the place and politics of the area in question. Previous commissions in Liverpool and Scotland are necessarily different, but followed a similar process to that taken by Southwark.
The Southwark Land Commission was a six-month investigation as part of the council’s commitment to deliver on its ‘Fairer, Greener, Safer’ Plan. It seeks to democratise land in the borough by rebalancing influence over land and property and to ensure that land in the borough delivers the broadest possible benefit, whether this is social, economic, commercial or ecological. It recognises that too many decisions that relate to the local impact of land are too far removed from the needs of local people.
The explicit objective of Southwark’s Land Commission is to “free up land for public good”. This is not just about supply of land. It engages with democratic land reform, reorientating relationships with residents and community groups to become more collaborative. It also redefines local demand for space, as well as how we value it. It is positioned within the London urban environment, challenging structures and systems which we have taken for granted over the last 40 years.
The commission also considered the technical and political practicalities of community asset use and land transfer as well as the barriers to community empowerment and ownership. It recognises that this cannot be a ‘flash in the pan’ and needs to promote a long-term change in the way we work collectively. In response to this, the commission identified a need to build capacity and to mitigate the risks that come from communities owning or occupying land.
Most importantly, the commission seeks a new shared narrative to liberate land to provide the space for people to thrive, freeing it up for fun; to provide food; to enable greater ecological diversity; to promote care; to provide spaces to live; to rest and to think.
How can others act?
More local authorities and public bodies should consider reforming the way they think about, use and value land. This does not necessarily mean convening detailed commission processes, as the reflections of Southwark, Liverpool and others may provide enough food for thought to apply alongside local evidence and community engagement.
A shared starting point for any deliberation is that publicly ‘owned’ property does not ‘belong’ to the council—it is managed on behalf of its communities to realise the benefit for them. By accepting this, it makes it easier to liberate publicly-owned space from traditional cycles of commodification, giving it special status to ensure every square metre is put to the most productive and impactful use possible.
The key lessons from Southwark are the need to think in a broad, systems-based way and to challenge the standard assumptions we make in relation to property. The commission’s principles of land use reform, public commons partnership and new models of value are all transferable; responding to social injustice and ecological breakdown are now necessities for all local authorities in the UK. This makes the Southwark Land Commission report a good starting point for the vast majority of places in the UK to develop their own plans of action for this important agenda.
As public bodies consider how they use land, they should also be reassured that this is not necessarily something new or radical. In the 20th century, the social democratic era was only possible thanks to the nationalisation of vast swathes of land. The expansion of public sector land reflected the growing power and significance of the state and enabled the delivery of mass council housing, parks, leisure centres, allotments, and community centres. Vienna’s public housing, London’s public parks, the National Health Service—all relied on collective endeavour in the way land and property is used.
In 2023, we are faced with new challenges—of climate, public health, and embedded inequalities—but also new opportunities of technology and distributed power models. As we all think about designing a pathway to a fairer, greener future land is probably a good place to start.