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Forward to the Land?

Dog poo. Yes, I can’t believe I just wrote that, either. But while walking my dog, Tashi, it occurred to me that these little dog walking rituals we perform (or fail to perform) in our town reveal how we relate to the land, at least at the level of the individual.

We seem to have higher than average dog companionship per capita. Many people walk their companions at Longmarsh down along the Dart, a strip of lawn, wetland and riparian wood, where the local regiment used to practise firing their long rifles. The approach goes along Steamer Quay, a long, wide strip of pavement where lumber laden ships use to dock. The whole way is typically a minefield of dog shit. On the pavement.  On the grass.  On the trail.  In fact, you have to be vigilant wherever you walk. Or cycle, or push your pram.  Really, it’s bad.

I almost want to call this an example of the “tragedy of the commons”, but it’s not really that. Tragedy of the commons is often trotted out to justify private ownership of land or other natural resources such that “the community” to which it would otherwise belong would be blocked from recklessly depleting its value. Somehow private property is the conservation antidote for “dog eat dog” anarchy.

But here’s a twist: we’ve taken him to the other side of the river the last few weeks, down toward the Steam Packet Inn. There’s a small triangle of lawn with a cluster of lime trees. There are signs marking it as private property belonging to the adjacent block of flats, but clearly it is open to the public and is criss-crossed with paths, and wedged between the river and the pub. Almost every morning there’s a grumpy old man there to yell at us about our dog. “Hey, listen here, get your dog off the grass. This is private property, Hurrumph!”

(Just for the record, when our dog poos, we pick it up! We are not Mr. and Mrs. Fouler who deign not, leaving it for somebody else to clean up, or the rain, or natural processes, or fairies.) 

Another twist: Right across the road, there’s a second tiny little triangle that forms the corner of an intersection, with a big conker tree, gravel and some shrubs. Here, a man pops out of his house, catching my dog in the act, and sternly, but very politely, lectures that a), this little patch is owned by South Hams District Council, and b) he takes care of it for them, and c) if our dog goes there, other dogs will want to go there, d) other dogs already go there, e) it’s not a pleasant sight for him in the morning while he’s having a cuppa.

Do these two men see themselves as custodians of the land or protectors of property? Are their attitudes distinctly modern, emblematic of centuries of appropriation, of 150 years of industrial capitalism, of a generation of ultra-consumerist propaganda that places each individual in the centre of his or her castle? Is land a commodity or a value-less commodity, until ring-fenced, owned and controlled? Or are these men motivated more by a desire to control others? And what about Mr. and Mrs. Fouler, what ethic could possibly sanction their polluting behaviour?

There are other land issues in this town that concern the community. Castle Meadow is a small tract of land given to the town, so the council promptly leased it out for sheep grazing, and announced that due to health and safety reasons (ticks and poo) it could not be opened for people to use. A controversy ensued, naturally. If the land was given to the people, why is it that a small group of people have the power to control how it will be used?

There many other tracts of land around the town, privately owned by this or that interest. The Dairy Crest site is a derelict brownfield comprising a couple of acres next to the river and the rail station, much of it in a flood plain. There plans afoot to force, cajole, or otherwise cause Dairy Crest, the owner, to sell or give it to a group that includes Transition Town Totnes (TTT). Their proposal, called Atmos for the Brunel pneumatic railway pump station building that resides on the site, is mixed use, providing affordable housing, small office and commercial space, a public performance venue, green build features and above all, it take into account community needs. Meanwhile, Dairy Crest is looking for maximum return, which may end up as a supermarket. 

Elsewhere there are several parcels in the early stages of planning approval for housing projects – Riverside, Dartington, Baltic Wharf. These sites are included in district council planning documents and are privately owned. There are stipulations that housing developments include some percentage devoted to employment purposes. This is often fulfilled by a care home or supermarket, I’m told.  But who gets to decide how this land gets used and who benefits? What if we absolutely don’t need another supermarket?

TTT is helping to lead an effort to become a pilot for the Neighbourhood Led Planning, which is part of the Localism Bill, and may provide at least a partial solution. It may be that this programme can provide a community oversight and ensure that community needs are met. It’s early days, but we think it may provide a mechanism that ensures a strong community voice in the process. Will this ensure that homes are designed and built sustainably, and that employment land supports local entrepreneurs, not supermarkets, big box retail, and chains? We hope so.

But these little dramas about dogs and sheep and supermarkets are played out against a philosophical and historical backdrop that’s rarely acknowledged. My friend Pete recently turned me onto Henry George, a 19th century economist who makes the point that land is neither property nor capital, but a common inheritance for all humans. I’ll add all beings. How could it be otherwise? It is literally the ground of our Being. Whatever economic or commercial value it is deemed to have derives from accidents of climate and population, not from human endeavour.

My friends at Landmatters purchased some old farm land a few years ago and their intention is to live closely on it. They live low impact lives in low impact dwellings.  They’re trying to make their livings there while healing, restoring and regenerating the woodland, native species, and water courses. Their neighbours have tried to stop them because they’re not farming it with tractors and fertilisers. Meantime, the Duke of Somerset and Duchy and other historical appropriators of the land, continue to reap huge profits and collect enormous EU subsidies.

It seems at every scale of relationship, from the individual to the community to the broad historical narrative of society, there is fundamental inequity, spiritual disjointedness, bizarre priorities. Has it always been thus? Maybe so, but it seems the current paradigm is not sustainable given current environmental, demographic and economic realities. Is it possible in 21st century society to rethink our relationship to the land in terms of equity, healing, reconnection? Maybe here in Totnes, through the Atmos Project and NLP, we can make a beginning.

photos:  Tashi, Throgmorten patch of land in question, Other patch of land in question, Atmos Project

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Jo Homan's picture


yes, know what you mean. It does feel like there's always been this struggle. I don't know what the answer is. I guess focussing on the Atmos project is a good start. Good luck with it. x

Peter's picture

Henry George

Thanks for the Henry George plug Jay! His book "Progress and Poverty" really opened my eyes to the absolutely centrality of land ownership in determining the distribution of wealth. I contend that you can't properly understand economics if you fail to grasp this relationship. The following insight was for me particularly profound: any increase in wealth created by society, be it caused by population growth, technological innovation, improved transport and communication, better/more efficient governance/organisation, improvements in education etc etc, will be claimed entirely by the owners of land. Thats why I recommend that anyone interested in the issue of wealth inequality read this book!

grace mccaughey's picture

Ownership of land

 2012 is a perfect year for the Community Land Trust(CLT) movement which is growing rapidly in US, UK and Scotland and is about to begin in Australia.   CLTs acquire land, by donation, long term lease or purchase. CLTs build housing,  including sweat equity, for sale to low to medium income earners.  Homes are highly energy efficient and suitablefore the occupants' needs only. Owners of CLT homes lease the land for a small fee and have lifetime tenure. See  or similar in the US.

CLT land and homes never reach the open market hence perpetual affordability.

This is the closest I can recommend to ownership of the commons for the sole use of ordinary people who cannot access land otherwise.  CLTs are not for profit community managed organisations.  CLT land can be used for not for profit(NFP) businesses of all kinds, community supported agriculture and so on,  to increase local food production and create jobs.   Even a NFP building company/co-operative could build the homes/shops/art centres etc etc.


The CLT idea is based on the Henry George philosophy and also on Ghandi's principles.  It is an idea for 2012 and onward. 

Peter's picture


If land is donated to a good cause (affordable housing, social enterprise etc) then CLTs are great for ensuring the benefits of this gift are locked down in perpetuity. However CLTs will only benefit a few leaving the vast majority fully exposed to the market, speculation and rent seeking behaviour. Thats why George advocated Land Value Tax as the only truly effective response to economic reality.