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A resilient future already exists

Mark Walton

Mark Walton argues that land needs to be at the heart of a more just, resilient, resourceful and sustainable future – and wants to hear your COVID land use stories!

As individuals, businesses and governments continue to struggle to get to grips with a pandemic that has rapidly impacted every aspect of our lives, our focus is beginning to shift from the minute-by-minute updates: the numbers of dead and infected, the latest public health advice and the ever changing restrictions on our day-to-day lives, to consider how and when we will emerge from this period of total lockdown. However it is clear that this is only ‘the end of the beginning’ of the global response to the coronavirus. 

As we come to terms with the fact that we will be ‘living with the virus’ for months or even years it is imperative that we start to think about the longer term and what needs to change if we are to improve our collective resilience to these kinds of globalised shocks. Fortunately many of the solutions are already in place around us – they just need to be scaled up. 

The response to the spread of the virus has cruelly exposed the fragility of the systems on which we rely. As people begin to realise that the disruption may last months, and as they start to contemplate extended periods of isolation, concerns are also rising about how we safely access greenspace, who is able to access it, how we ensure our farms have adequate labour, and whether or not we have the sorts of local relationships and connections we need to survive as communities in times of crisis.

These concerns are neither new nor unexpected. For many years groups of people concerned about the fragility, unsustainability injustice and alienation inherent in our current system have been developing alternatives. Taking on underused public land and assets like old local authority plant nurseries, disused allotments or under managed woodlands they have created thriving businesses that create food, fuel and timber products, often selling directly to consumers, restaurants or end users. They also act as hubs for their local community by providing training courses and volunteer opportunities, and helping people develop new relationships and skills. Critically as we emerge from prolonged isolation, they also often provide wellbeing and mental health services that reconnect people with themselves, with others and with nature. 

We call these people ‘common good land users’.

Whilst many of these organisations are small in scale, some such as Organiclea, a food producing cooperative in North East London, or Hill Holt Wood, a woodland social enterprise in Lincolnshire, are substantial businesses. They supply hundreds of families and businesses each month with fresh, sustainable, local produce, fuel and construction material, and have close relationships with their customers, enabling them to negotiate fair prices, and to manage supply to meet demand. 

Whether or not the prolonged restrictions on movement and international travel really brings an end to the current era of supercharged global capitalism, as some are predicting, we are going to have to do more than adopt new social distancing and personal hygiene habits if we are to make our economies and communities more resilient to future shocks. 

As Larry Summers, a leading US economist, stated towards the start of the current crisis; “I think you’re likely to see more emphasis on self sufficiency, more emphasis on producing near customers and less emphasis on the ability to maintain very long and complex global chains … Self reliance will become a larger theme in economic policy”.

Common good land users exemplify this kind of resourceful thinking and stand poised and ready to scale up. Once established there is no shortage of demand for local food and timber products, and the business models that enable them to grow these resources, create livelihoods, and deliver training, education and wellbeing services are well developed. The barriers they face are access to land, access to capital, and access to expert support to help them develop their sites and business. 

These are all areas where local and national governments can play a positive role. 

Our towns and cities – especially those where deindustrialisation and disinvestment have critically weakened local economies and communities – often have significant amounts of land in public ownership. They also have a key role to play as procurers of goods and services. Where funding is made available for local economic development and recovery this should be focussed on growing resilient local economies based on strong local relationships of cooperation and mutuality rather than attracting inward investment for projects that simply act as links in a fragile and complex globalised system of production and logistics. 

The components of a more resilient post-coronavirus economy and society are all around us but they need support to scale up and help us meet the challenges of the future. At the moment the commitment of national and local governments to ensuring a recovery based on resilience and resourcefulness is weak, fragmented, and contradictory. Many voices are already calling for a green new deal to ensure that investment in recovery should be focussed on restructuring our economies so that they mitigate against and can withstand future shocks. At Shared Assets we support that call and believe common good land use has a critical role to play in the post COVID economy. 

Over the next few months and weeks we will be working with common good land users – and the organisations and networks that support them – to help tell the story of how they have dealt with this crisis, share learning on how they are adapting their models in the face of the ‘new normal’, and how we can work together to ensure land is at the heart of a more just, resourceful and sustainable future. If we haven’t already been in touch, and you have stories or learning you’d like to share about how your land-based project has responded to the crisis, then please do get in touch at hello@sharedassets.org.uk 

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