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The planning system and common good land use

Isabella Coin

Our most recent workshop focused on how the planning system can help land-based social enterprises deliver common good land use. This event is part of a series funded by Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, focusing on the key issues facing land-based social enterprises.

The planning system plays a key role in determining what can and can’t be developed on a site, and hence what activities a social enterprise can pursue and  what business models it can develop. This can have a huge impact on the ability of land-based social entrepreneurs to make a living and deliver shared social, economic and environmental benefits.

While researching our recent policy report, we found that many land-based social enterprises reported problems in dealing with the planning system. Our workshop on 13th April created a space to discuss these issues. We also collected insights to feed into our response to the recent consultation on rural planning.

The workshop focused on some of the key areas where the planning system could do more to support land-based social enterprises to contribute to sustainable development:

  1. Living on the land is beneficial to land-based social enterprises but  permission is hard to secure through current planning regulations.
  2. Modern land-based enterprises often need to diversify and planning policy and authorities often fail to recognise the need to develop infrastructure to support this and maximise value.
  3. Developer contributions can support land-based groups to develop green infrastructure, through the use of Section 106 and CIL, but this potential often remains untapped.  

Overarching these three issues is the fact that planning policies and mechanisms are hard to navigate for non-planners, and it is often hard to create opportunities for mutual understanding through open, accessible dialogue between planning authorities and land-based social enterprises.

Living on the land
There is a clear business case for landworkers to live on the land. At the workshop, it was stressed that agro-ecological methods are labour intensive and require the worker’s presence. As such, a better work-life balance can be achieved when the landworker and his or her family are able to stay on the land. Additionally, incomes derived from land-based enterprises are generally low, therefore avoiding transport and alternative accommodation costs can mean more sustainable livelihoods.

Despite it being so beneficial for ecological land management, the routes to secure rural enterprise dwellings through planning are few and complex, and outcomes can be extremely uncertain. In some cases, landworkers have been granted personal planning permission on specific conditions, but practice is not consistent and the process can take a lot of time and effort. Even if an argument makes ‘business sense’ for a land-based social enterprise, it may not constitute a convincing planning argument.

Diversifying income
As public budgets decline, land-based social enterprises need to find ways to maximise and diversify their income in order to be viable. However, it can be difficult to obtain planning permission to build facilities for new activities not considered to be part of traditional land management

The way regulations are  communicated is also an issue. Updated versions of policies are often hard to access online, and land-based social enterprises may struggle to resource extended engagement with the planning system. Rural planning needs to be more supportive of developments aimed at diversifying income, for example through bringing visitors on to the site for recreation or education.

Harnessing developer contributions
When a developer applies for planning permission, the local authority can grant it on the provision that the developer contributes to the additional burden the development will put on local infrastructure. This usually includes the maintenance of roads due to increased traffic, but can also include developing or maintaining environmental assets.

Land-based social enterprises offer a way to manage the environmental assets sustainably, and could make good use of funding from developer contributions such as Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). However, the cases where this has happened are rare. There is scope for much more of this funding to go to land-based enterprises, considering the positive contribution they can make to green infrastructure and environmental assets.  


Smoother collaboration between planners and land-based social enterprises could increase social, economic and environmental benefits

It emerged at the workshop that a communication barrier often complicates interactions between planners and land-based social entrepreneurs. At times it appears people are simply talking at cross purposes.

  • Land-based social entrepreneurs can find it hard to understand and navigate the planning system. We do not believe this is due to lack of intelligence or effort – rather, certain parts of the system are simply not intuitive. Barriers that planners understand to be fundamental can be difficult for outsiders to grasp, especially where they prevent developments that would clearly benefit the environment and society.  A smoother collaboration between planners and land-based social entrepreneurs could provide increased social, economic and environmental benefits, and help achieve planning objectives. This is why we are looking to develop opportunities and resources for mutual understanding and collaboration between planners and land-based social entrepreneurs.
  • Planners are usually unfamiliar with the work and potential values of land-based social enterprises. Workshop attendees expressed a need for a planner’s guide to these groups and their potential value. They emphasised that this would need to make the case in ‘planning terms’ to be effective.
  • Attendees also identified the need for a planning advisory service for land-based social enterprises, with videos and other media resources to help them through the planning process.

By identifying areas for policy change, and finding ways to facilitate collaboration, we hope to benefit land-based entrepreneurs, planners, and ultimately common good land use.  Our next workshop will focus on skills deficits issues and it will take place on 13th July. You can find out more about the other key issues we are focusing on in our recent policy report, or read about our previous workshop on local authority commissioning.

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