In September 2020, the first meeting of the first ever city-regional Land Commission in the UK was convened in Liverpool, well, virtually at least. Facilitated by the Manchester-based think-and-do-tank, the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), this initiative gathers together a dozen experts on democratic land reform, from activists involved locally in community land trusts, makerspaces and social enterprise incubation to academics such as myself and national planning policy reformists and international campaigners for the commons. This is not a Commission in the conventional sense – when existing policies are pored over and every parcel of land meticulously documented – but rather a kind of ‘pop-up think tank’, as CLES have likened it. The Land Commission is intended to influence land use policy within the Liverpool City Region, at both the Combined Authority and constituent local authority level, but aspirations amongst its members are for shifting the national and even international debate on how we treat land as property. This means transitioning from something thought of as legally owned, as in the Roman sense of ‘dominion’ so tightly bound up with slavery and imperialism, towards thinking of it as a gift of nature to be governed through trust and stewardship.
Commissioned by Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram to come up with “imaginative thinking” for “radical recommendations” of “how to make the best use of publicly-owned land to make this the fairest and most socially inclusive city region in the country”, the Commission promises to produce action-oriented ideas for concrete projects across the city-region – practical proposals to be implemented rather than generic suggestions merely endorsed. With the latest radical thinking around public-common partnerships, community land trusts, and other forms of democratic ownership already on the table, hopes are running high. But commissioners are also realistic, if not yet cynical, about political limits. Austerity still determines how local authorities divest of their assets – incentivised to sell them off in order to plug gaps in funding for statutory services – while neoliberalism still maintains a tight grip on policy thinking. The question remains how far the Land Commission can act to loosen that grip? Is this going to be any more than a tokenistic gesture – the self-proclaimed “first” Land Commission of its kind – to advance a boosterist agenda of urban entrepreneurialism?
Liverpool has long been a city of ‘firsts’ – pioneering a number of civic and social innovations, from Europe’s first municipal housing, in 1869, to the world’s first urban planning school, established in 1909 at the University of Liverpool. The city was ahead of the curve in going through industrialisation, deindustrialisation and post-industrial transformation. Suffering devastating economic decline and mass unemployment and losing half its population in the second half of the twentieth century, Liverpool has also been a hotbed of extraordinary experimentation in radical alternatives to its maritime-anchored slavery-enriched colonial-capitalist legacy. In the 1970s, the city generated one of the country’s largest, most democratic and imaginative housing cooperative and community development trust movements – part of Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives to public housing – with around 50 co-ops still owning land in common today. So no surprise then that the city-region now hosts the first Land Commission of this kind.
But we must be wary of falling for the myth of Liverpool exceptionalism, which also animates a vain boosterism propelled by the competitive capitalist logics of place branding and urban entrepreneurialism. Liverpool has indeed been exceptional at selling itself to the world, receiving many millions in EU and state grant funding for regeneration and, through its historic trading links, attracting huge amounts of global capital investment – with glitzy plans for the north docks enterprise zone dubbed in the press as Shanghai-on-Mersey. Liverpool’s iconic Liver Building may well have once inspired the architecture of the Bund (Shanghai’s Waitan district) but capital and control increasingly flows the other way now. In leaving Liverpool vulnerable to the vagaries of capricious global markets, this is a bankrupt growth model which many of us on the Commission – not least CLES – have sought to demonstrate as completely incapable of resolving enduring urban inequalities and deprivation.
The dark side of Liverpool exceptionalism is the disgraceful damage done by treating the city-region as somehow different to other places, less deserving of support or more responsible for decline. Decades of neglect through ‘managed decline’ and fiscal punishment by central government stand behind the singling out of the city-region, in October 2020, for the harshest covid-19 lockdown restrictions, with many residents feeling they are being “scapegoated” by government. Liverpool has a proud history of resistance to such unfair treatment – the 1980s saw the Militant-led Labour City Council fight back against government-imposed austerity by spending “illegally” high budgets to deliver their ambitious programme of municipal socialism. Since their defeat by Thatcher, however, the city has been forced to play the cards dealt to them by government in the neoliberal ‘regeneration game’ – although many community-led initiatives have more recently begun ‘playing with the rules of the game’ to enact transformative forms of local economic development, notably through taking land into common ownership.
Land in Common
Amongst the most inspiring projects are Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust (CLT), Homebaked CLT, The Beautiful Ideas Co. CIC, Baltic Creative CIC and Make Liverpool CIC. These initiatives are all either Community Interest Companies (CIC) or Community Benefit Companies with a legal asset lock to ensure the community retains all surpluses and ownership of all assets, governed democratically through participatory processes. Amongst those on the Land Commission are some of the leading activists and practitioners involved in these projects. One challenge for the Commission is how to enable the flourishing of similar projects on publicly-owned land across the Liverpool City Region, working closely with common associations through public-common partnerships – a glorious subversion of the public-private partnership model that has dominated the regeneration game.
For the past several years, I’ve been working with a collective of researchers at the University of Liverpool, collaborating closely with activists and practitioners across the city-region, to promote the benefits of a different approach to local economic development, one exemplified by the social and solidarity economy and rooted in common ownership of land and assets. Our research into the scale, scope and value of the city-region’s social economy and on an alternative city-regional industrial strategy, oriented towards entrepreneurial municipalism and community wealth building, aimed to uncover the extent of economically radical activity and increase its political visibility for greater policy support. In publishing our findings in 2017 we recommended the establishment of a city-regional Land Commission. Seeing that taken up by the Metro Mayor (the term used for mayors associated with a city-region) is a promising sign that the governance culture is beginning to shift.
So what does this mean for the tentative emergence of a new municipalist politics in Liverpool? Sceptics might highlight the democratic deficits of the Land Commission process. How were the commissioners chosen? Why weren’t more local people invited to contribute to the process of selecting commissioners or, indeed, involved more meaningfully through participatory decision-making forums such as people’s assemblies? At the very least, why weren’t the networks and organisations representing development trusts, housing cooperatives, place-based social enterprises and community interest groups more formally involved in the process? Read ungenerously, the Commission simply reproduces existing power asymmetries between the governors and the governed, continuing the age-old Liverpudlian tradition of clientelistic ‘boss politics’.
But this is too unkind. The Land Commission is bravely treading new ground – and doing so in a context marked not only by such problematic local politics but also by decades of neoliberal privatisation of public land and services, of the hollowing out of state capacity, of the throttling of local government with the chalice of devolution poisoned by austerity, and the ideological suffocation of cooperation and solidarity by market logic. Doing something like this in spite of these conditions is remarkable (if not exactly exceptional) and should be applauded, notwithstanding legitimate concerns around democratic process and political impact.
Land commissions as municipalist tool?
Writing in The New Enclosure, his penetrating audit of the systematic privatisation of public land in Britain, Brett Christophers documents previous attempts at establishing a Land Commission. The most radical came in 1967, when Labour established a central-government Land Commission to, in Anthony Crosland’s words, “take into public ownership, by agreement or compulsory purchase, any land needed for development” (page 111). This radical move towards nationalising all development land followed the seminal reforms of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which effectively nationalised the development rights to build on land. The Act also introduced the ‘betterment levy’, which, until its abolishment by the Tories in 1953, taxed 100% of the increase in land value arising through development permission. If the Liverpool City Region Land Commission is to meet the expectations of commissioners and wider publics, these are the kinds of ambitious initiatives – capturing surpluses of private development for public and community benefit – it should seek to make politically possible.
In 2014 and 2015, very different sorts of land commissions were established in Greater Manchester and Greater London, at the behest of Whitehall, to bring together public sector owners across these city-regions to collate a combined register of assets – “a digital Domesday Book of surplus brownfield land” (page 199) – in order to facilitate land disposal to the private sector. They proved inept, partly due to neoliberal exhaustion but partly because the damage had already been done. Christophers calculates that since Thatcher came to power in 1979, half of all public land and assets have been sold off into private hands – valued at over £400 billion and representing 10% of the total British land mass! Ambitions for the potential of the Liverpool City Region Land Commission must be tempered by this depressing reality.
Most recently, the Scottish Land Commission was set up in 2017 in order to “promote a stronger relationship between the people and the land” on the basis of “the idea of land for the many and not just for the few” – representing, as Christophers remarks, a “radical ideological break from Scotland’s feudalistic land history” (page 346). Liverpool’s commission takes its inspiration from Scotland, with a representative from the Scottish commission amongst its members. Commenting on its future prospects, Christophers could just as easily be writing about Liverpool: “Of course, these may ultimately prove to be empty words; it remains to be seen whether the Commission can deliver on its promises. But at least there is a Commission, a body with a bold vision and the promise of change” (page 346).
At its boldest, then, the vision of the Liverpool City Region Land Commission is about using the platform provided by the political and media interest in its novel establishment to challenge the very discourse of ownership and property itself. It is a city quite literally built on the riches stolen from the forced labour of human others, through their enslavement as forms of property, to be bought and sold just like land still is today. The Land Commission presents an important opportunity to challenge this colonial-capitalist foundation of property ownership and the illicit wealth it generates. Many commissioners are raising important issues about how we might advance reparations and spatial justice and learn from Black and non-western perspectives on land stewardship – as an alternative to ownership. The challenge ahead lies in how to bring this vital vision into coherent conversation with the more immediate, pragmatic task of identifying the sites still publicly-owned across the city-region and the legal mechanisms and common ownership models that could be utilised to democratise decision-making over land use and support the expansin of the urban commons. All this must be approached within the political constraints set by central-local state relations, austerity, devolution and planning reforms. In short, how do we revolutionise property relations through radical municipalist interventions that must simultaneously work within capitalist coordinates to deliver the best outcomes possible for people and place?
Matt Thompson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place with research interests in municipalism, economic democracy, urban transformation and the social and solidarity economy. His new book Reconstructing Public Housing has just been published open access by Liverpool University Press.
Photo: Community café plan for Granby Four Streets. Credit: Granby Four Streets