Sometimes, public farmland has been rented or managed by a third party for a long period of time. Leases (or other types of agreements) are tacitly renewed and use goes unquestioned. Plots can be scattered and there is no coherent policy on how to use them.

A good place to start is to have a more complete picture of the publicly owned land in your area. This can include land owned by your local authority, but also by other public-interest actors with whom synergies are possible, e.g. national land trusts, local charities, Social Welfare Centers, federal land, and so on. Mapping and investigating current uses, existing contracts with tenants, as well as the land potential (e.g. biodiversity and natural riches it hosts, fertility, etc.) will provide a good basis to establish a strategy.

If surveying land is a lengthy process – depending on the extent of assets and interests of users and owners involved – the diagnosis phase should not be an obstacle to, in parallel, starting a conversation to set objectives for the use of public assets. Local authorities can also begin to act on the plots that are clearly identified (see manage section), to demonstrate willingness and gain credibility in regaining control of public land.

Inventorying public farmland and its current uses

Questions to consider

  • How many hectares?

  • Are these regrouped or fragmented?

  • Can they make viable farming units?

  • Is the public farmland being used for farming?

  • Who currently farms it?

  • What type of crops and agricultural practices are present?

  • Do we have formal leases or arrangements with users?

  • Are some leases up for renewal soon?

  • Are some tenants nearing retirement age?

Studying public land characteristics and quality

Questions to consider

  • What is the land quality?

  • For what kind of farming is it suitable?

  • Have some soil analyses been carried out?

  • Are there special natural characteristics (e.g. water sources, forests) or fauna/flora?

  • Are there storage units or farm buildings on these lands?

  • Other infrastructures (irrigation, greenhouses, energy, processing units, etc.)?

  • Is it easily accessible?

  • Consider the regulatory, planning, and environmental context: are there regulatory constraints in the use of plots (e.g. easements, classified woodlands, proximity of infrastructures)?

Weigh costs and benefits

Questions to consider

  • How much are we spending to manage/maintain these lands?

  • Do they bring monetary benefits (leases, other)?

  • Are there non-monetary benefits (climate, environment, food, etc.) related to these lands?

  • Can we increase them?

Consult on uses of public farmland

Questions to consider

  • Who is interested in the use of farmland (tenants, other farmers, neighbours, consumers…)?

  • Should there be a focussed plan to manage it in the future?

  • Who should have priority to use public farmland?

  • How can farmers and the community most benefit from it?

  • Can we create a consultative committee on the use of these lands?

Establish a plan to manage land (and communicate!)

Questions to consider

  • Can I better formalise leases?

  • Prioritise certain users when leases are up for renewal?

  • What kind of agricultural practices do I want to encourage on public parcels?

  • Can I set objectives and communicate about them?

  • Am I ready to make the public more aware about current uses and goals for future use of these lands?

Identifying the land of your local authority is one thing. Mapping this land and identifying its characteristics can be more complex. You may consider partnering with a university’s geography or land planning programme. Some teachers look for field projects for their students and could help survey your area. Local community groups may already be interested in and doing some mapping work. Support from your land registry or land agency can also be harnessed. In a larger local authority, your planning department may already have GIS technology. Otherwise, consider open-source mapping software (with existing tutorials) to collate information at a low cost.

--> See also: how to get started section for tools on surveying and deciding on the use of public land.

Ghent’s vision for the use of public farmland

Ghent works to articulate its broader strategies on space and food with an agricultural vision and instruments to steward the “open” peri-urban spaces. In particular, the City is developing a vision for the use of publicly-owned lands. Some actions by Ghent include:

  • Establishing a moratorium on the sale of land surrounding the city between 2019 and 2025.

  • A participatory approach, in particular involving the local farmers (those established locally or that sell their products in Ghent) through workshops to develop an agriculture and land vision.

  • Taking stock of previous experiences in managing public land (e.g. an open call was carried out in 2017 to assign 10 ha of land to locally-oriented and sustainable farming projects).

  • Deepening knowledge on leverageable policy instruments.

The main goal of the strategy is to protect and strengthen the agricultural areas of the city of Ghent. The elaboration of the strategy consists of two phases, the first phase focuses on building the vision upon which the strategy will be based, through the participatory workshops, and the second phase refining the strategy to a more agricultural focus.

The examples of Ghent and Cornwall illustrate a rising movement of local authorities to regain control of public lands and use them to deliver local benefits. However, the creation of a good strategy is not enough to achieve coherent public action in institutional environments with other competing objectives. Ghent’s work on a vision for public farmland materialised in a context of important public pressure after collectives of farmers and activists denounced the sale of a massive amount of public land (450 ha) by the city’s Social Welfare Center. Until today, the city faces difficulties in balancing the need to protect periurban land and the need for financial bankrolling of Welfare Centers’ action. Thus, while the moratorium on sales has preserved some areas of farmland in the city perimeter, other tracts of public land continue to be sold in the region. For Cornwall, while the process and strategy for county farms were inspiring, its implementation still needs to be assessed. With their limits, these examples shine a light on some important learnings.

  1. Effective public land strategies are articulated with other relevant policy frameworks (e.g. on food, climate, urban development, and so on).

  2. They should include specific, achievable objectives and a time-bound process to monitor them.

  3. They are in line with a budgetary framework that prioritises and enables land stewardship.

National laws should also support the establishment of such local land strategies, with guidelines on objectives and financial rules that enable local land stewardship (see advocate section).

The next sections will bring additional information on making public land strategies work in practice: how to manage public land, investment, and find synergies with other actors to achieve your goals.

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