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The Grenoble Alpes Métropole land policy

Author: William Loveluck, Terre de Liens
1) Objectives and highlights
The Grenoble Alpes Métropole (GAM) has for many years pursued the following objectives:
  • protect agricultural areas in a landlocked territory, located in the middle of mountains and therefore with a limited usable farmland
  • and to encourage the renewal of generations of farmers by intervening on the land market.
This policy has notably resulted in a reinforced relationship between the agriculture and the urban planning department of the Metropolis, the implementation of a space for the protection of agricultural land (PAEN – standing for ‘Protection and improvement perimeter for peri-urban agricultural and natural areas’) and a tripartite agreement (between GAM and land agencies – SAFER, EPFL) aimed at favouring interventions on the land market. GAM has also participated in the setting up of an inter-communal farm.
2) Stakeholders involved
Local authorities involved ;
  • Grenoble Alpes Métropole (GAM), gathering around 450,000 inhabitants, located in the middle of three mountain ranges of the Alps;
  • All the local authorities (49 of them) which are part of the Metropolis, especially the ones that have farmland on their territory.
Other stakeholders involved
  • The SAFER (Société d'aménagement foncier et d'établissement rural – standing for ‘Organism for rural land design and rural settlement’): the regional land agency which monitors farmland sales and intervenes when needed to make the sales best suit national/local objectives. They take action by potentially buying the land, via their pre-emption right, and selling it back to the person they choose.
  • The EPFL (Établissement public foncier local – standing for ‘Local public land agency’): a public institution whose mission is to assist local authorities in their land and building acquisitions (rural or urban). By ensuring the initial land banking and management, they free up time and resources so that local authorities may elaborate their development projects.
  • Local farmers
3) Context and levers
With nearly 8,200 ha farmed by 225 farmers, 15% of which are organic, the GAM benefits from a dynamic socio-economic landscape reinforced by more than twenty years of regular actions in favour of agriculture. Between 2005 and 2015, agricultural areas in the metropolis decreased by 567 ha. As the GAM territory, in a mountainous context, already has limited arable land, the loss of agricultural land for urban development automatically reduces the potential for local food supply. Urban development and the decrease in available farmland have led to an increase in farmland prices of 22% between 2000 and 2019 (around €7,150/ha in 2019 in the main valleys, while the average price of agricultural land in the region was €4,900/ha). The necessity to “manage land scarcity” (has pointed out by Lilian Vargas, head of the GAM’s Agriculture, Forestry, Biodiversity and Mountain Department) has historically led to incorporating a vision for agriculture in territorial planning – rather than considering agriculture just as an "economic sector". Furthermore, the local agriculture is traditionally based on mixed farming and livestock production, which makes it adapted to supplying diversified products for the urban market. This “double vision” (land and agriculture planning) has led to “cross-cutting approaches” at several levels in GAM. Within the agriculture department itself, which is affiliated to the planning department (where in many authorities it is rather attached to the economic department), and in the internal working habits of the local authority, where the agriculture department is present and able to do "internal lobbying" in any other commissions which could involve urban development (transport, etc.). This ensures that all decisions from these commissions take farmland and farm structures into consideration. GAM is also part of 14 national and European networks, and is very proactive in the ‘Terres en Villes’ (standing for ‘Lands in Cities’) network, which has made it possible to advocate at higher levels of government for regulations to protect farmland. The GAM staff notably participated in proposing new schemes such as the PAENs (protected perimeters for farmland), for which they participated in elaborating the first legal draft.
4) Actions led
According to GAM, the French legal framework already offers many interesting tools concerning land management and land regulation. However, for efficient action it is important to have good political support, to use these tools in an ambitious way, and to combine them in a coherent manner.
Regarding land planning, the GAM has combined:
  • an ambitious Territorial Coherence Scheme (SCoT), i.e. a planning document that provides directions for larger “living areas” (several communes). Beyond a shared vision and objectives, the GAM’s SCoT includes indicators and a good framework for its implementation, so that it can play a prescriptive role and legitimise internal negotiations (e.g. maximum number of square meters per dwelling, precise zoning of development areas, strict limitation of potential developments in zones with sensitive issues, etc.). The current SCoT aims to slow down urban development on agricultural land and to protect 90% of the agricultural and natural areas as they existed in 2000.
  • an inter-municipal Local Urbanisme Plan (PLUi), which concretely defines the rules for construction and land use at the plot level in the 49 local authorities of the territory. The PLUi has also made it possible to declassify 188 ha of land intended for urbanisation in favour of keeping farmland for agricultural use.
  • a Perimeter for the protection of agricultural and natural peri-urban areas (PAEN), which was implemented to protect 610 ha of agricultural and natural land from urban development. In the GAM’s context, the PAEN was simpler to implement as the farmers are mainly leasing their land and not owning it (they are not opposed to a strong legal protection of land, as they cannot potentially get money from the sales). Furthermore, the methods of consultation used by the Metropolis were key for successful implementation. They involved seeing farmers and municipalities one by one, before organising collective meetings. Two other projects of this type are currently being studied on the GAM territory.
Concerning the land intervention policy, in 2010, the GAM supported the acquisition of a farm in partnership with four local authorities, in order to save one of the last farms of a geographical area. The local authorities invested in adapting the farm buildings to meet the legal norms, which allowed a couple of goat breeders to work there organically, in accordance with the specifications of the call for applications for this farm. In 2013, the Metropolis adopted a framework deliberation setting out the principles for its intervention on land. A tripartite agreement to acquire and protect farmland was also negotiated between the GAM, the SAFER and the EPFL. This collaboration enables to react quickly to changes that may affect agricultural land. If necessary, SAFER’s pre-emption right is used, and if a long-term intervention is needed, the EPFL can bank the land for the time necessary to set up an agricultural project. Since 2013, GAM and the EPFL have acquired more than 110 ha of agricultural land, of which 35 ha are used by four farms created entirely on metropolitan properties (seven farmers), 20 ha are land reserves on which calls for projects will be organised, and 55 ha are small plots spread throughout the metropolis that are rented to some twenty local farmers.
5) Limits and perspectives
The GAM case provides a good example of an approach that successfully combines agricultural development and land use planning. The local land policy incorporates many of the regulatory tools available to local authorities in a coherent manner around clear and shared objectives. Regarding farmland protection, however, the GAM’s experience shows that regenerating and densifying urban spaces, which is a corrollary to safeguarding open spaces, is a more complex and more expensive endeavour – as you need to adapt old buildings to new needs – and therefore requires a strong political will.
The Metropolis’ agreement and collaborations with the SAFER and the EPFL are very effective to intervene on land sales (not only because of the agreement itself, but also due to the good partnership and work habits established with these institutions). However, it is not effective to intervene on most farm successions, which involve both lease and ownership transfers, given 80% of the agricultural land is leased in the region.
The GAM’s recent shift from an ‘agricultural policy rationale’ to a ‘food policy rationale’ also involves a much broader approach, in which they need to link land and agricultural issues with health, social issues, cultural heritage, etc. In this new paradigm, local authorities need to think jointly about supply and demand and about "flow" logics. The solid land policies that GAM has built in the previous decades will therefore have to serve this new logic.