Manifesto: Land in the Public Interest

Key messages:
  • We are facing multiple urgent climate, biodiversity, and economic crises. Land is the place where these crises intersect.
  • Local authorities who support access to land for agroecology can generate benefits which go far beyond the farming sector.
  • Local authorities have a variety of ways to make a difference on land - even when resources are tight, or when they don’t own any land.
  • This handbook shows how local authorities can take action.
We live in a time of interlocking crises. Wherever we are, we are facing a combination of catastrophic climate change, irreversible loss of species, and increasingly insecure food systems. Citizens are more and more disempowered and worried about the future. While this is a global situation, it can have acute impacts at the local level. From the perspective of local authorities or municipalities - whether you are a small-town mayor in Germany, an estate manager in rural England or a local councillor in Romania - this can feel both urgent and overwhelming.
This handbook makes the case that by addressing how they interact with the land in their area, local authorities are able to both build the power of their citizens and begin to respond to these global crises. We believe that local action is key to a regenerative future, and hope that this handbook will inspire many authorities to take and strengthen action across Europe.

Why is land important?

Land nourishes us. For all of us, it is a key component of the places where we live: as well as growing our food, it is the basis of the ecosystems that enliven our planet. For farmers, it is their living, working and production environment and cultural identity. Land is, like water and air, essential for human survival.
Land is a topic that can transcend politics. It is the fundamental input into our local economies, and offers ways of improving and supporting the health of local people. Land can fuel agroecological farming systems and can contribute to the protection of natural resources, public health, diversity of landscapes, job creation and sustainable rural areas. In cities, it can bring a breath of fresh air to our surroundings, increasing their desirability and reconnecting inhabitants with their roots.
Across Europe, we see similar trends and needs. The expansion of industrial agriculture goes hand in hand with the marginalisation - and potential extinction - of diversified human-scale farms, which create local jobs and sustain local areas. We see a rise in profit-centred approaches to land management, which aim at extracting value from land use even at the expense of soil fertility and food security.
The decisions we make today on land can determine whether we continue to fuel extractive farming systems or whether we ensure that farmland is used for nourishing, fair and sustainable agriculture.
We have also reached a generational turning point. In the European Union, 60% of farmers are over the age of 55. When they retire, over the next two decades, millions of hectares will change hands. What happens to this land when it arrives on the market to be sold or rented will be decisive in all our futures. It could lead to greater land concentration, more intensive agriculture, a disconnect between agriculture and society, and the decline of the countryside. Or, if the right decisions are made, it could enable a new generation of farmers to emerge, and a transition to forms of agriculture which support both local communities and the planet.
As the historical cornerstone of private property, land is too often regarded as a commodity, whose use and stewardship is at the will of its owners. But across Europe, there are also patterns and patchworks of historical “commons”, land that has been managed outside of the logic of the private market, sometimes for centuries. And even within the dominant market-driven system, there are legal frameworks that account for the fact that land is not a commodity like wheat or steel. It is within these frameworks, such as planning and zoning systems, building and development control, and environmental regulation, that local authorities can act in broader interests than those of the landowner.
Land in the city will always be contested - between private interests, commercial development, and communities. Community interests should come first - public land should be for public goods. Land in the urban and peri-urban environment could bring countless co-benefits: good local food, education and training, sustainability and resilience, healthy soils, healthy ecosystems, clean air and water. We need to rethink how we approach the use of land in and around urban spaces." - Abi Mordin, Chair of the Glasgow Community Food Network and Director of Propogate - Rethinking Local Food. Scotland, UK

Why should local authorities act?

By taking a systemic view of the land in their areas, local authorities can begin to rebalance power towards the public interest. Making our land – particularly farmland and woodlands – work in the public interest is an act of reinvention, of stepping into a different worldview. Local authorities are well placed to lead this.
Local authorities are key players in creating a better land system for a number of reasons. If they own land, local authorities can use it in exemplary ways to produce the food we eat and improve the quality and diversity of our local environments. They can involve local communities in decisions about public land and encourage collective responsibility for it. Even in times of budgetary constraints, public land assets should be handled with care; they are a limited resource that belongs to the people. If the ownership of the land has to change, the interests of the local community should be prioritised.
Even where local authorities don’t own land or don’t have many powers over it, they often hold information, know relevant stakeholders and can connect them, or can provide some form of support to those interested in creating better land systems (like endorsing their action, or providing meeting space). Local authorities can also galvanise a renewed land culture in their areas. Even simple acts like explanatory signage or other communications showing how farms impact the local environment can get more people interested in land and their own relationship to it.
In many - but not all - countries local councils have a key role in the land market, whether that is through the land-use planning system, controlling land access rights, taxing land development, or other regulations. They are also being asked to implement national and international objectives, particularly around climate goals - but at the same time find that these goals are often in conflict with the logic of the private property system that they are also part of. In light of this, local authorities can advocate for better national frameworks to enable land stewardship at the local level.
By using their power to act on land they own, regulate the way others act, and to convene and facilitate others, local authorities have huge power to change the prevailing dynamics of the land system. They can create a more regenerative, more prosperous land economy that supports their local communities while addressing global challenges. This handbook shows you how.
This handbook can serve as a well prepared tool through which local authorities can both propose policy change on a regional level and amend future policies through consultation processes. The handbook also offers new ways in which local authorities can act and solve community problems in the countryside, respecting the indications of the central Government but also addressing typical issues of our commune.” - Peter Vasile, Local Councilor, Small-Farmer, Commons user. Sancraiu Commune Local Council, Cluj County, Romania