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The land-based social enterprise sector

Tom Kenny

This blog explores what we mean by ‘land-based social enterprises’ and why we think they are an important focus for our organisation. The sector consists of a diverse range of organisations united by social and environmental goals, and their need for and use of land.

Defining land-based social enterprise

Land-based social enterprises are organisations that use land to produce social and environmental value, whilst also generating income through trade. To explain this further it helps to break it down into what we mean by ‘land-based’ and ‘social enterprise’.

  • By land-based, we mean organisations that use land, or ‘environmental assets’, to carry out their core activities. This ranges from organisations working in forestry in remote parts of the UK to organisations that run projects using the waterways of busy cities. Lantra and Open Fields both define the land-based sector through  comprehensive lists of activities. However, we will avoid defining and categorising the sector by industry, as we know the sector is full of innovative and non-traditional approaches to land use that such definitions can miss.

While we recognise that many conversations about land start with housing, we are deliberately not including organisations whose primary focus is on housing or other building projects. When working with these organisations, our main goal is to ensure that wider land use is considered. For example, whilst many Community Land Trusts will not be land-based social enterprises by our definition, they may have a key role in enabling them, and certainly need to be a part of the discussion.

  • By social enterprises we mean organisations who are set up to generate income, but who also have a primary social and/ or environmental purpose into which any profit is reinvested. This excludes private sector land-management organisations where profits are distributed to directors or shareholders. It also excludes organisations that will always be entirely voluntary or are purely interested in non-productive land uses like conservation. This is not a critique of such organisations, rather an acknowledgement that organisations that need to derive income have different needs from those who do not. This is also more about aspiration than income – we are looking at organisations who target self-sufficiency even if they haven’t got near it yet.

Why are we focusing on social enterprise land management?

One particularly attractive aspect of  of social enterprise in this context is that seeks to deliver against a triple bottom line, creating social, environmental and economic value.  Land based social enterprise is therefore well placed to develop a ‘new commons’; a self-sustaining model of land management that creates social and economic value as well as improving environmental outcomes. This kind of model is especially attractive in a policy climate of austerity and localism. Traditionally only projects with an independent income such as an endowment have been sustainable in this way, with other projects being dependent on grants or public funding.

This is not to say that other models of land management are less important. As we discussed in a previous blog, the ideal of the wholly self-sufficient organisation operating in a marginal industry and producing value largely unrecognised by the market, is often unrealistic. Equally it is important that not all land is managed for humans, and especially not for the market. Social enterprise land management is just one model. However it is one with popular and political support, that is offering innovative ways to improve undermanaged land. This is why we think it is something worth focusing on.

Describing the land-based social enterprise sector

Defining the sector is just the first step and through this process we hope to develop a much more nuanced appreciation of the diversity of organisations that exist and what this means in terms of developing the sector. These organisations are normally categorised by their activities, for example food growing, renewable energy production, waterways management or forestry. We want to move past this for two reasons. First because it creates silos that prevent organisations engaged in different activities from focusing on common causes. Second because the idea of an organisation involved in one activity is becoming increasingly out of date. Most of the land-based social enterprises we have worked with are involved in a range of different activities, of which traditional land management may be only a small part.

We want to describe the sector in ways which will draw links between similar organisations engaged in different activities or on different types of land. One benefit of this would be the potential for practitioners to learn from each other and work towards common goals such as campaigning for policy change. It could also enable support and guidance to be better focused. Finally it would help give both landowners and social enterprises more realistic ideas of what they need and can offer, enabling better matching of landowners with social enterprises.

Through this process we are investigating a number of what we think may be key defining characteristics of different types of land-based organisations. A few examples we will be investigating further are:

  • Aspirations regarding scaling – are they focused on a specific piece of land, a particular area or community, a local authority, or trying to grow to become a regional or national organisation)?
  • Main tasks/ mandate – are they mostly involved in governance, day-to-day management, creating sustainable livelihoods for their members, or campaigning?
  • Requirements from land – do they need ownership, long term leases, medium term leases, meanwhile leases, or informal permissions?
  • Relationship to land: are they mostly focusing on traditional land management, running other land-based activities, or using land to provide other benefits?

We hope that by understanding, supporting and promoting the land-based social enterprise sector, we can help it to achieve its potential.

This blog is the final instalment in a series of policy blogs that have considered some of the issues facing land-based social enterprises. We have also been running a survey designed to understand the state of the sector. If you are a social enterprise working with land, please help develop the sector by filling in this short survey.

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