The City of Leuven allocates public land to sustainable farmers

Authors: Petra Tas and Annelies Beyens, De Landgenoten

1) Objectives and highlights

The city of Leuven shifted from selling its local farm land to allocating it for local food production. A first project call took place in 2019 in which 10 plots of 9 ha in total were offered. In 2022, a second project call was launched offering another 12 plots for organisations or individuals (not necessarily professional farmers) to set up agricultural initiatives that are sustainable, economically feasible and innovative, and add value to the local community.

2) Stakeholders involved

Leading public actors:

  • The city of Leuven, which owns land

  • 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

In recent years, an integration between municipalities and OCMWs has taken place. In Leuven, the real estate of both entities is centralised within AG Stadsontwikkeling (Autonomous Municipal Company for Urban Development). This actor manages all the land based on policy objectives.

Other actors:

The AG Stadsontwikkeling has led the call and selection of farming candidates along with the Voedsel- en Landbouwadviesraad (VLAR; Food and Agricultural Advisory Board of Leuven). The VLAR brings together experts in agriculture- and food-related topics and representatives of organisations with agricultural expertise, as well as local politicians and civil servants within the field.

3) Context and levers

In 2004, the OCMW of Leuven owned about 1150 ha. From 2004 until 2019, the OCMW sold a lot of land to finance its social missions, representing on average around €980,000 euro per year. By 2020, the OCMW, owned about 373 ha. The land is located in sub-municipalities around Leuven: Wilsele, Wijgmaal, Heverlee, and beyond.

During the time of sale, the biggest farmers union in Flanders (Boerenbond) had lobbied for an arrangement where a maximum of 20% of a farmer's leased land could be sold. For instance, if a farmer was leasing 10 ha of the OCMW, a maximum of 2 ha could be put up for sale. In most cases, the tenants bought the land.

At a certain point, the local agricultural board suggested that a more thoughtful policy was needed for agricultural land within the territory of Leuven. The sale of agricultural land was put on hold. This was also in line with the adoption of a ‘local food strategy for Leuven' in 2017, which led to the statement 'Voeding Verbindt' (Food Connects) covering seven strategic goals among which 'giving space to local sustainable food production'.

4) Actions led

Among its first actions, Leuven inventoried all land along with data on tenancy. Land free of lease was considered eligible to support young and sustainable farmers. In 2017, a proposition to allocate land for local food production was made, but it wasn't approved. After a participatory process which included, amongst other stakeholders, traditional and alternative farmer organisations and the city, the proposition was approved in 2019.

That same year, a call for projects was launched to distribute ten plots of 9 ha each. 15 candidates applied, and ten projects were approved. The projects had to have a score of at least 50% on five aspects (sustainability, economic viability, feasibility, social added value, and innovation) and of at least 70% in total to be selected.

The ten approved projects indicated their preferred parcel. Afterwards, AG Stadsontwikkeling linked the project to the plots. At the start Leuven imagined establishing a lease with the candidates, allowing to give certainty to the user and impose conditions (i.e. the execution of the approved project). It however proved difficult to formulate a leasehold contract and its conditions correctly. Therefore, all projects started off with a precarious contract, free of charge ('bezetting ter bede').

After a seminar for local authorities held by De Landgenoten, Terre-en-Vue and Brussels Environment in March 2022, Leuven got renewed energy and inspiration to look for a solution for more secure leaseholds. During the seminar, the duration of the contracts with farmers was a point of discussion. The administration wanted the same duration for everyone, while that may not be desirable nor necessary, depending on the different ages of the candidates. Having decided that the leaseholds shall be set at 20 years, the city council approved in November 2022 the first 20-year long “erfpacht” (a type of emphyteutic lease in the Flemish law, which provides the tenant with secure conditions but no right to build upon the land).

In 2022, a second call was released for another 12 plots of 22 ha in total. The same five aspects to score candidates were used. This time the call also allowed for agroforestry projects to be submitted. No term or contract was initially specified. Submitters were asked which plot and terms were of interest to them. The allocation process differed from the call in 2019 as the plots were allocated to the highest scoring project for each specific plot. This call thus focused on allocating only plots of preference and allowed for the possibility that not every plot will host a project, to avoid sub-optimal allocation. Of the 12 plots, four have not been allocated because there were no candidates.

5) Limits and perspectives

The case of Leuven illustrates how a local authority can act on public land. They are one of the important pioneers in Flanders on this topic. Besides its role as land owner, the city is collaborating on different projects and topics to support local food production and consumption.

Leuven is currently looking into ways to facilitate specific uses of private farmland within its territory. In 2022-2023, a study by a local college will take place mapping 'improper use' of farmland, as numerous non-agricultural uses inhibit access for farmers in Flanders, especially in the area between Brussels and Leuven.

Leuven also works on a carbon farming project of the Innovatiesteunpunt (Support Center for Innovation). The idea is to set up a local climate fund in which people can compensate their CO2-emissions by investing in local soil.

Finally, Leuven invests in upscaling short supply chains. Kort'om Leuven is an initiative in which they collaborate to help make local products accessible (without further sustainability requirements). The city also participates in GoodFood@School, a project about healthy and sustainable meals for children and is involved in another initiative dedicated to redistributing food surplus.

Leuven also faces some limits to its actions. For instance, it can be challenging for the city to dialogue with existing traditional farmers to nudge them to produce for the local market. They often notice a certain distrust and it seems hard to turn this around. As they move along, Leuven finds that it would be very useful to learn from other local authorities within the region, and from other European cities too. They are already part of the VVSG-network (Flemish Society for Cities and Communities) Food Pioneers. They signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and the Glasgow Food & Climate Declaration.

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