Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic:

We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

Sand County Almanac

what is a land trust?

A land trust is an organisation that takes legal ownership, stewardship or partial control over property at the request of the landowner.

A Community Land Trust (CLT) is a legally defined concept which may take different forms but must conform with the definition set out in the Housing & Regeneration Act 2008. For example, a CLT must be designed to benefit a designated community rather than individuals or shareholders.

community benefit society

An example of a form of CLT is a Community Benefit Society (CBS). The Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 requires a CBS to “carry on a business, industry or trade” that is “being, or intended to be, conducted for the benefit of the community”. CBSs normally have members who buy shares and have voting rights on the basis of one member one vote.

A CBS has limited liability which means that it has its own legal personality. Therefore in the event of the Society not being able to repay its debts,  the liability of members is limited to the amount that they have paid for their shares. A CBS is governed by a set of Rules and registered by the Financial Conduct Authority.

In the context of securing affordable access to farmland for farmers and the community, a CLT may be referred to as a Community Farm Land Trust (CFLT). The Biodynamic Land Trust is a CBS formed in 2012, following an earlier report by Stroud Common Wealth into Community Farm Land Trusts. A number of the projects enabled by BDLT have, in turn, developed under the structure of a CBS.

Key ideas and principles from the land trust movement

1. Land can be understood as a bundle of rights over uses, rather than a commodity to be bought and sold on the market. For example, rights to graze, water, pick fruit, wood, access/roam, exclude, play, fish, hunt, build on, mine for minerals, etc.

2. A community land trust is an open membership, charitable or for community benefit, democratic (i.e. one member, one vote) civil society organisation. It acquires, holds and stewards land and property in trust for community benefit and for enterprise.  (cf Eleanor Ostrom’s work on Commons governance, summarized in Appendix 2 of Common Wealth (2010)).

3. Trusteeship is different from private or statutory forms of ownership, meaning that the land is looked after for present and future generations to benefit from, and such common pool resources as land are replenished. Any income from leases or rents are used to replenish the land, and for other community benefits.

4. Community land trusts are connected with a geographical locality, or community of place. There are, however, other kinds of land trust, such as the National Trust, Soil Association Land Trust or the Biodynamic Land Trust. These are national in scope and are based on communities of interest.

5. One basic idea from ‘The Community Land Trust’ by Robert Swann, the US community land trust pioneer, and the economist Ralph Borsodi, is that land can be understood as a gift of nature, a unique common pool resource or commons which needs socially stewarding. On the other hand, the house, or structure built upon the land, however is a commodity, which needs maintenance. So community land trusts typically hold a master plan for a neighbourhood, hold the land in trust. They lease out the right to use the land, say to a householder or to a farmer to build structures on and/or to improve.

land and property

6. Land and property: ownership of land in reality means the possession of a bundle of rights over land, such as the right to occupy, to cross or to fish. These rights include the rights to transfer the rights to others. Land tenure is the legal system, which defines the nature of this bundle of rights, how they relate, and how they are conveyed and recorded.  Land ownership is about how the rights defined by the tenure system are possessed, the pattern of these rights and the character of those who hold the rights.

There is a key distinction between land and ‘property’. Land is basically any part of the surface area of Britain out to the territorial limits. This includes lakes, streets, land under buildings, hills, fields and forests. It also includes the land under the surface and above the surface, and land can be owned  ‘from the sky to the centre of the earth’. Property is used to describe the sum total of the land and what is built upon it. The law makes no distinction between a house as property and a field as land-anything built on the land is part of the land. However a surveyor can value land, excluding all improvements and structures on the land, for example, for land value tax purposes. So some bodies call themselves land and property trusts not just community land trusts.


7. Values: keeping farms affordable and or accessible for farmers and communities. In Orkney, for example, farmland costs less than the UK average, which means that entrant farmers can buy farms and farm viably. The farmland market there is not (yet) distorted by hope value, potential development value, and rural estate value. Typically farmland trusts can play a constructive role where active farming is dying off. This is because farms are often being sold to non-farmers for prices unaffordable to farmers.  Local communities also have an interest in preserving a viable agricultural economy and locally produced food.


8. New land tenure models: Conventional farm ownership gives farmers long-term security of tenure, with the opportunity to build equity in both residential and agricultural improvements. However, when such farmers or their heirs eventually sell these farms in appreciating farmland markets, the prices will not be affordable for entrant farmers. Non-farmers may purchase farms, the farms are divided into lots and sold piecemeal, or the fields rented out to the remaining local farmers or contractors.

So, what alternative models of ownership can give farmers long-term security of tenure, the opportunity to build significant equity and also prevent farms from being priced out of reach of future farmers? What ownership models strike a balance between the existing farmer’s interests in owning his/her own farm and on the other hand, the interest of aspiring farmers who want to buy farms for affordable prices? Or the interests of local communities who want to preserve a local agricultural economy and enjoy locally produced fresh food?

The Equity Trust in the USA has developed two ownership arrangements, one involving conservation easements and the other, long term ground leases:

conservation easements

8.1. Conservation easements: these are a means by which the landowner gives up the right to develop land. They transfer development rights to a non-profit land trust or to a government agency that holds these rights permanently. However, such easements may not bring down farm prices where buyers are looking for privacy, estate value and open space. So some US land trusts require the farm be actively farmed, that the farmer etc occupy the farmhouse. This easement can be controlled by the land trust, which can exercise a first right of purchase option.

ground leases

8.2. Ground leases with lessee ownership of improvements. The land trust acquires the freehold of the land, whilst agreeing a ground lease with the farmer. This lease transfers specific rights of use and possessions to the farmer, along with ownership of buildings /structures on the land and other improvements on the land. Farmers normally buy the existing improvements, including the farmhouse, when they enter into a ground lease. Such ground leases can run for 99 years, with provisions for inheritance of the leasehold interest. They may also be renewable so as to provide long-term land tenure for farming families as long as a competent family member is able to farm.

Both methods involve ways of sharing ownership. The allocation of bundles of rights, and can require, for example:

  • conservation practices;
  • practices for increasing biodiversity;
  • organic and or biodynamic farming; and
  • detailed land management plans.

For Britain, it will be important to explore the legalities, advantages and disadvantages of developing a ground lease, as opposed to the Farm Business Tenancy. It would be important to explore how feasible and easy it is for famers to put a biodynamic easement in their wills.

Martin Large (12.07.2012)

a co-operative community benefit society

As a community benefit society, the Biodynamic Land Trust is a body drawing on the co-operative tradition. This is a means to both mutualise and neutralise land assets for biodynamic community benefit.  As a result, this tradition offers a rich set of values and principles to draw on.

The International Co-operative Alliance Statement on the Co-operative Identity defines a co-operative as:

an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

The Statement goes on to consider co-operative values and principles.


Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.


The co-operative principles are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice.

1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control

Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.

3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation

Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence

Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.

5th Principle: Education, Training and Information

Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

6th Principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives

Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

7th Principle: Concern for Community

Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.


  1. Large, M, Common Wealth, (2010) Land for People and Communities chapter
  2. Equity Trust, Preserving Farms for Farmers,
  3. Wightman, A, The Poor had no Lawyers, Birlinn, Edinburgh 2012
Community Farm Land Trusts Project leaflet picture