We chat to Cate Chapman, Managing Director of the Ecological Land Cooperative, a social enterprise which develops affordable ecological smallholdings in England for new entrants to farming.
What inspired the creation of the Ecological Land Cooperative?
The original drivers to create the ELC – some six years before I first became involved – were a desire to address the lack of affordable access to land for new entrants to small scale farming, coupled with deep concerns about the unsustainable nature of the prevailing culture of land use and food production in this country.
The ELC aimed to become an organisation that could act as an interface between farmers and the planning authorities, undertaking the complex process of seeking planning permission for low impact developments, and to be a community orientated organisation that would look after the land and manage it ecologically.
The origins of the Ecological Land Co-operative reach back to informal discussions in the spring of 2005 between members of the following organisations: Chapter 7, a planning consultancy with experience working with smallholders and ecological projects; Radical Routes, a secondary co-operative of co-operatives working for social change; UpStart Services, a co-operative development body; and Landmatters, a newly established community co-operative managing 42 acres near Totnes. We were lucky enough to attract some grant funding as a start-up group, and formally incorporated in 2007.
What are the issues that aim to address?
The Ecological Land Co-operative was set up to address the lack of affordable
sites for ecological land based livelihoods in England.
The average age of a British farmer is now 58. The high set up costs involved in establishing a farm business and high costs of rural housing means small-scale ecological farmers struggle to generate, from farming alone, the income required for a mortgage for the average farm. This means that it is extremely difficult for new entrants to farming (including young people) to buy existing holdings to farm. In addition to this, the UK planning system isn’t set up to encourage small-scale, low-impact farms, and gaining permission for new residential smallholdings is extremely difficult.
I think our work is really important in the current context of land ownership. We live in a deeply unequal society and we also live in a society where our food production is unsustainable, degrading the land that is both our shared heritage and our shared responsibility. Our model seeks to return land to community ownership, and to return land to ecological management. In this way we can create a situation in which we build new rural livelihoods for small farmers in England, and contribute to the creation of a safe and just food system.
Ecological producers aren’t able to easily get planning permission in the open countryside and afford a dwelling in the open countryside. The ELC as a co-operative works to keep the skills – in terms of applying for planning permission – but also to give local authorities greater assurance that the dwellings we create in the open countryside would remain for rural workers.
We’ve put together a co-operative which brings together community finance, we buy bits of land and subdivide them to three to five smallholdings, and then put together an overarching plan for that site. And then when we approach the local authority we can talk to them about why there’s a need for people to live on the land, we can show them example business plans, and we can show them our management plan for the site and the kind of monitoring that they’ll see from us to make sure that land is indeed used for agroecological production and is kept in affordable use. We can give local authorities assurance more than just as an individual looking for planning permission as any permission granted will be kept and protected for agroecolgical producers because we are a community benefit society.
How do you address these problems?
The ELC is a social enterprise. We’re a cooperative in structure and we exist to create new opportunities for new entrants to horticulture to have access to land for sustainable uses.
The ELC buys parcels of marginal agricultural land – conventionally managed agricultural land – and then splits it into smallholdings, residential smallholdings, and applies for planning permission for residential use. As well as land, we provide smallholders with permission to build their own sustainable home, and with utilities and road access. Our model allows us to keep costs low, both through buying larger sites at a lower price per acre, and through distributing the cost of infrastructure, planning applications and subsequent site monitoring across a number of smallholdings.
The Ecological Land Cooperative was founded in 2007, what have you achieved so far?
Over the last seven years our co-operative has developed a unique model for producing smallholdings and protecting them for ecological agriculture and affordability. We have also developed three residential smallholdings at Greenham Reach in Mid Devon.
Greenham Reach, is a cluster of three affordable smallholdings for new entrants to ecological agriculture in the parish of Holcombe Rogus, Mid Devon. A five year temporary planning permission was granted for the project in 2013. The permission allows us to use our 22 acre Greenfield site for three farm businesses including constructing a barn, track and three temporary residential agricultural workers’ dwellings for each smallholding.
Our co-operative started life as a small group of individuals with a shared vision and a great deal of commitment, but with a shared lack of business and planning experience. Despite this inexperience we’ve succeeded in taking our idea through to a reality, and we have learnt a great deal on the way: we now know how much a smallholding cluster costs to produce; we know how long our smallholdings take to deliver; we have learnt about our legal obligations as a developer and freeholder; etc. We now need to take that knowledge forward, and prove that our model is robust and repeatable.
What next for the Ecological Land Cooperative?
Based on our 2015-2020 Business Plan, we’re planning to create around 20 residential smallholdings between now and 2020. We’ve also expanded our staff team and restructured internally to make the organisation more resilient and robust. We’re really hopeful that as we expand, developing more smallholdings, we will demonstrate that this model works, and that the path will become easier for people to create smallholdings of this kind.
Where can we find out more?
A good place to start is our website, http://ecologicalland.coop where you can sign up to our newsletter. You can also connect with us online via facebook https://www.facebook.com/ecolandcoop and twitter @ecolandcoop
Top image: Working the veg beds, Steepholding