The City of Ghent’s vision on public farmland

Authors: Petra Tas and Annelies Beyens, De Landgenoten

1) Objectives and highlights

The city of Ghent is currently creating a vision with regard to the local farmland owned by the local Public Centre for Social Welfare (OCMW). The process to build the vision is participative, involving the organisation of workshops with relevant stakeholders. This initiative is embedded in a larger Interreg project, PROSPERA, with the goal to protect and strengthen open space and agriculture in Ghent.

2) Stakeholders involved

Leading public actors:

  • The city of Ghent (different departments within the city administration are involved)

  • The Public Centre for Social Welfare (OCMW) - OCMWs are the historical heirs to – mostly agricultural – estates donated to former charity institutions since the late Middle Ages

For a few years now the city of Ghent and the OCMW have formed the ‘Groep Gent' (Group Ghent). Therefore, the city is more involved in what should happen with the land in ownership of the OCMW.

Other actors:

Ghent involved other stakeholders in its vision-building work: farmers, citizens, different civil society organisations linked to agriculture, nature conservation and access to land, the province of Eastern Flanders, researchers, etc. To capture the input of the farmers community, the city reaches out not only to farmers within the territory of Ghent, but also farmers with Ghent as their market.

3) Context and levers

Ghent has had a local food strategy for about a decade: 'Gent en Garde'. Important pillars of this strategy are short chain supply, sustainable production and consumption, social added value, avoiding waste and circularity. Up till now, the actions related to this food strategy, however, are mostly consumer-oriented.

Ghent is a populated city, yet about 20% of the territory remains used for agriculture. Some of the farmland is in ownership of the Ghent OCMW, which owns about 1800 ha, of which 150 ha within the city limits. The majority of the remaining 1650 ha is located in a radius of 10 km around Ghent. Other plots are situated in the rest of the province of Eastern Flanders and the neighbouring province Western Flanders.

For the OCMW, it is important to allocate land for social goals, i.e. for the benefit of vulnerable groups. After the OCMW sold 450 ha of farmland in 2016 just across the border in the Netherlands to an enterprise in the hands of Fernand Huts, CEO of a large company, a farmer went to court to contest this sale. A citizens collective arose ('de Hongerige Stad', 'the Hungry City') demanding a change of policy regarding the sale and use of public land, which led to a moratorium on the sale of farmland until the end of 2022.

This was a trigger for the city of Ghent to increase efforts regarding local food and land strategies. Since 2019, it became a partner in PROSPERA, an Interreg project between five European cities that focuses on the protection and enhancement of open space and natural heritage in peri-urban areas. PROSPERA enables interregional exchange of knowledge and good practices, as well as methodology and tools building. Other participating cities are Varberg (Sweden), Debrecen (Hungary), Reggio Emilia (Italia) and Aristotelis (Greece).

4) Actions led

Ghent leads various actions to create an agricultural vision and a vision on how to allocate the land of the OCMW.

First, an experiment happened in 2017 in which the city launched a call for projects for about 10 ha of OCMW farmland to be used for sustainable local food production projects with added social value. A collective of farmers now uses this land in Afsnee, in the outskirts of the city, free of charge for a period of 9 years (with the option of renewing this term twice) under a few conditions.

More largely, since 2020, the land and agriculture vision-building work has begun with a first phase including the following actions:

  • Elaborating basic principles of the agricultural vision in relation to the local food strategy. As mentioned, the city reached out not only to farmers within the territory of Ghent, but also to farmers with Ghent as their market to create this vision.

  • Elaborating the basic principles for the replacement of nature grounds within a spatial implementation plan (already approved in flanking policy).

  • Elaborating basic principles for strategic OCMW land for agricultural policy.

Phase 2, after approval of the vision:

  • Refinement of the vision on agriculture and OCMW land.

  • Process of realising the agricultural vision (with all farmers, also outside of OCMW grounds).

  • Number of concrete realisations linked to the agricultural vision / OCMW grounds.

5) Limits and perspectives

Over the past 20 years, the number of farmers in Ghent has been halved. In order to be able to conduct a specific policy for this small group of people, it is important for Ghent to create a narrative that emphasizes the importance of this group for the city and its residents.

At the same time, Ghent faces social challenges for a significant number of inhabitants. The OCMW is willing to preserve public agricultural land rather than selling it if another source of revenue is found to support its actions for socially-disadvantaged groups (i.e. providing social housing, renovating residential care centers, etc.). This calls into question to the way cities and communities are being financed and the lack of financial means – which fuels the sale of public agricultural estates.

The Flemish farmland lease law creates another limitation. In the frame of this law, the city is not allowed to stipulate conditions for the use of public land (e.g. conditioning leases to ensure tenants practice sustainable agriculture, sell in short food supply chains, or realise other social goals), nor would it be able to freely choose the farmer to whom it allocates the land. Therefore, following the 2017 call for agricultural projects, Ghent opted for long but free contracts with selected farmers. This means tenants cannot benefit from the same security and rights the lease law offers. For the city, it also means no financial income is derived from this land. On the contrary, Ghent pays the OCMW for the use of these plots by sustainable farmers. Replicating this model for the remaining 1800 ha of OCMW land would not be feasible.

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