​We need new land ownership model - Ewan Aitken

Ewan Aitken, CEO Cyrenians ScotlandEwan Aitken, CEO Cyrenians Scotland
Ewan Aitken, CEO Cyrenians Scotland
​I recently had an interesting conversation explaining to one of my English friends what “tattie hawkin’” was and why it was closely connected to the timing of the October school holiday – the legacy of a time when kids had to get home to help in the fields.

Our largely urban lives have loosened our connection to the land and the rhythm of the seasons. One young woman who spent a day on our Cyrenians Farm in West Lothian asked in horror when digging up some potatoes – “Eh – what are they?”

“Potatoes,” came the answer. “What are potatoes?” she replied. “They're what chips are made of,” was the response. “Yuk,” she cried, “I’m never eating chips again!”

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We lose something special when we become disconnected from the land which feeds us and shelters us. Our sense of life is more limited, and our care for nature less of a priority.

Being connected to the land matters a great deal, even, or perhaps especially, when it comes to using it for the shelter we need. Building houses might seem contrary to taking care of the land, but the problem is not land use but land ownership. Without a very different model of land ownership, we cannot build the houses we need – houses which respect the land and the seasons which shape it.

In Edinburgh, we need 1,111 new social homes a year to meet demand. But last year we only built 451. The cost of land is one of the biggest barriers. We’ve made land another commodity, not something we hold in common to be used with care to meet our needs. Its value has become defined by what profit it can make, not what need it can meet – not just human need but the needs of all living things.

In other countries, most land is owned by the state, which enables its use for a wide variety of needs, including housing. When housing is built, developers build what is needed for the communities whose land is being used. They still make a profit – there is nothing wrong in making a profit – but it is made from building the houses people need, and from the communities which make houses into homes.

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In Edinburgh, there are around 5,000 families in temporary accommodation, because our housing system is completely broken. We are in crisis. There are no houses for them to move on to. Repairing it will require many things to change, but land ownership needs to be at the heart of it.

We need a fundamental shift away from our present land ownership model, where the vast majority of land is owned by a small group of people; a limit on how much land any single person can own in Scotland; councils to be given the right to force the sale of vacant or derelict plots; and a new Public Land Agency, shifting from the private sector being the primary provider of houses to the public sector providing not just houses, but “places of public good” meaning a mindset of houses being homes from which communities are built.

Without a collective reconnection with the land, we will never create a housing system for all. And that number of families in temporary accommodation will only continue to rise, to all our detriment.

Ewan Aitken is CEO Cyrenians Scotland

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