The land liberation society: Can people power regenerate wasted urban space?

Graham Norwood visits a new community project to find out

Could a new community development in a vibrant London village hold the answer to Britain's housing shortage? The project – called Brixton Green and set on a underused patch of land in the heart of Brixton, south London – rejects old-style answers like council housing or quango-led regeneration, and equally steers clear of leaving it to private developers to build dreary identikit "luxury apartments" and high-rent shops. Instead, it is an ambitious £100m bottom-up scheme of social and private housing, small business units and public open spaces which will rely on local contributions to a community share-ownership scheme as well as private funding.

The key to the scheme is the release of currently unused land – in this case almost four acres of it, amid dense social housing close to Brixton Market and Electric Avenue – owned by Lambeth Council. If Brixton Green's ambitions come to fruition, they could be a template for "land liberation" of the kind advocated by Housing Minister Grant Shapps.

Shapps is introducing the Community Right To Reclaim Land (CRRL), an initiative beefing up existing powers allowing disgruntled residents to oblige councils and other public bodies to release land they have left unused for years.

Combined with relaxed planning controls, possible tax breaks for self-builders and the "Big Society" push, he hopes CRRL will entice local people to do what councils can no longer afford to do and what private developers are clearly failing to do – build more homes.

If it works it will be down to people like Philippe Castaing, a French restaurateur who has lived and worked in Brixton for 15 years and calls himself a "social entrepreneur".

Castaing wants to use freed-up public land to correct past regeneration errors. "So many local communities have fabulous ideas for their area and then get a council or a body to take them up, but then the project is handed to private developers. The area gets a lift but it is no longer affordable to the people behind it," he says.

Instead Castaing, the chair of Brixton Green Community Land Trust, has persuaded Lambeth Council to release the plot, which has been vacant for more than 30 years, and is now selling community shares to residents and traders. "The revenue will be nothing like enough for the development but it will give local people a stake in what is happening and show large-scale private investors that we operate in a business-like fashion," he says.

Brixton Green currently has a board of local people, aged 18 to 65, and is setting up a separate company – an "arms-length delivery vehicle", in investors' jargon – to work with funding companies and negotiate with developers.

Once complete, the scheme will be jointly managed by Lambeth Council, residents and local businesses. In addition to housing, the scheme will include small stores and workshops, including a cluster of high-quality Caribbean manicure and hairstyling boutiques, for which Brixton has become renowned in recent years. There will also be new premises for a local theatre group, an art gallery and a base for London Print Works, a textile trust and training centre.

"It's not rocket science. If local people have a stake in the funding and then a stake in the homes and commercial premises upon completion, they will ensure it is well-managed and supported," insists Castaing. He is launching the community shares scheme in the spring and will be speaking with private investors shortly afterwards.

His infectious enthusiasm tempered by the realities of running his own business is, perhaps, precisely what Shapps wants to see in future community development.

There is certainly no shortage of publicly owned land for future schemes of this type.

The Department of Communities and Local Government says there are 40,000 acres of land either used as informal open space or left derelict, but owned by councils and other public bodies from the Ministry of Defence to the BBC. The amount of unused land owned by central government – which Shapps and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles could presumably release for development – would be sufficient to build 60,000 new homes.

Shapps is making determined noises. "It's completely unacceptable that people have to walk past derelict land and buildings every day in the knowledge there's almost no prospect they will be brought back into use," he says.

In the characteristically combative style of the Coalition, Shapps insists a new website listing the locations and sizes of publicly owned unused land will be online by May and will end "the bureaucratic indifference" and "state-sponsored decline of local communities" by councils.

Shapps says this is part of wider reforms including the Community Right To Build initiative, which may mean some developments initiated by local groups like Brixton Green would in future not be subject to the current lengthy and expensive planning procedures.

Others supporting Shapps' aims are more guarded.

David Ireland of Empty Homes, a charity campaigning for derelict properties to be bought into use as houses, says Shapps' initiative contains "some good ideas" but wants more emphasis on refurbishments of existing buildings and not just the creation of new homes on empty sites.

Empty Homes claims that, combining private and public property, there are 870,000 empty homes in Britain and enough empty commercial premises to create 420,000 new homes.

"If a public landlord is wasting a building by leaving it empty, people should have the right to apply to use it themselves. We'd like to see Community Right To Reclaim enhanced to really give power to people to tackle wasted buildings," says Ireland. He says bodies like the regeneration quango the Homes and Communities Agency, the MoD property arm Defence Estates, the NHS and some housing associations are among the largest owners of unused buildings which could most readily be renovated for use as homes.

Community action – in land and homes, plus schools and public services – is the Coalition's catchphrase. Whether it can succeed in an era of spending cuts and economic downturn is a moot point, but projects like Brixton Green suggest the spirit is more than willing.

"We're under no illusions about the difficulties but localism and access to empty land can only help. They make people look at their own area differently," explains Castaing.

"Communities have extraordinary resources. It's just a case of harnessing them."

Communities in action

* London Citizens Community Land Trust wants to build family housing on the 4.5 acre site of St Clements Hospital on Bow Road.

* Local residents in the Devon village of High Bickington are working with the county council to acquire a 20-acre site for development as housing, woodland and workshops.

* The Halton Autistic Family Support Group in Runcorn has reclaimed the site of a former boilerhouse in Runcorn for a community base and 'centre of excellence for autism'.

* Environmental groups want to build social housing and sustainable gardens on a site at Digbeth in Birmingham, owned by the city council.

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