Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Exploring land stewardship

By Chris Blake

Caerau, Treherbert, and Ynysowen, Wales

Skyline, managed by The Green Valleys CIC, was a year-long project to explore the feasibility of landscape-scale, community land stewardship in Caerau, Treherbert, and Ynysowen — to create a shared vision for the next 100 years.

Coal and steel created the Valleys communities, which today illustrate a striking paradox — a landscape that has been largely repaired but a society struggling to respond to the loss of industry. Steep-sided valleys have created communities that are both geographically and psychologically isolated — unable to take up economic opportunities along the M4 corridor. The high moorland that surrounds each valley does not support any economic activity that engages the local economy.

But the Valleys communities are also isolated by land ownership — by the red lines of land registry maps as much as by contour lines. Uniquely for post-industrial communities, each Valley town is surrounded by publicly owned land — the forests of Welsh Government Forest Estate, legacy coal boards, and local authorities. None of these landholdings provide any economic benefit to the communities. Where the land is of economic value — from forestry and wind power — it is managed by national and international corporations with no direct economic benefit to the local community.

What would happen if a community had the right to manage the land that surrounds the town, for the long-term? What happens if we transfer to the town the rights to use all publicly owned land — to the skyline? We sought to answer one important question — do communities want to be stewards of their own landscape?

Asking a question that has never been asked before is a difficult challenge. The possibility of community land stewardship had barely been considered. The forest on the sides were managed by the ‘Forestry Commission’. It was easy to find people who had lived in the valleys for 50 or 60 years who had never even been in the forest — let alone considered taking control.

To answer this core question, we started with artists to engage communities, to help people speak with their hearts first, their minds second. Our artists enabled so many different activities.

We broke bread together — 100 people met for lunch; we wrote poetry — the local primary school children capturing what they would put, “in my magic box of Treherbert…”; dreamcatchers walked the streets of Aberfan collecting dreams on coloured ribbons. But most of all we remembered. Together we remembered what had been lost. We celebrated memories of place and of community. And then we started to dream, imagining the world 100 years into the future, crystallised in the postcards received from a century hence. A future vision made real. A vision different from both the past and the present. A vision built on the residents’ dreams.

There were other questions we sought to answer. Are there sustainable business models that would allow communities to break free from a culture of grant dependency? Are communities able to manage the landscape in a way that enhances ecological resilience for the long-term? Can these projects be well governed for the long-term? The artists wove their spells. The memories and the dreams emerged, and grew, and took root.

A few things struck me powerfully. Firstly, the residents of each valley instinctively balanced all the goals that are so often presented as being in conflict. Yes, they wanted jobs and prosperity — but they also wanted a more resilient environment — “more round trees, less pointy ones”. They wanted access for everyone — for the young to learn and for the physical and mental health of the elderly. Secondly, the elderly had no problem describing with passion their vision for a valley in 50 or 100 years — a future they would never see. Thirdly, the scepticism, hardened over four decades of repeated policy failure, that any changes would make any appreciable difference to their lives. And this, I came to realise, was because in the past what had been offered was money or development staff — both of which come to an end and leave the place unchanged. Why might Skyline be different? Perhaps because we are offering something that hasn’t been offered before. Control.

I realised that above all you go to listen and not to tell. We are enabling and facilitating and not consulting. We are providing a space for dreaming. Working with artists allowed us to have a far more productive conversation than we could have achieved with traditional facilitation practices. Engaging hearts before heads allowed us to build trust more quickly.

But perhaps the single most valuable thing we did was to take members of our three communities to Scotland to see community land projects first hand — seeing what other communities had achieved. In each case we worked in partnership with an established and trusted community organisation. This gave us knowledge, insight and a start to conversations. We also found that children were able to express the most compelling vision of the future. Perhaps because they were unencumbered by the history, they provided deep insights into place and its future potential.

But it all takes longer than you think. Nine months and our limited budget was not enough to start a develop a deep conversation with the community. It is all too easy to talk to the small group of people within a community that volunteer for everything — the usual suspects. The enthusiasts, often retired, but open to new ideas. Starting conversations with the unusual suspects is more difficult. It takes time and imagination. I wish now we had the time and the budget to engage more fully across the wider community although I also recognise that not everyone is willing to engage. We found it particularly hard to reach the 30–45 year olds — perhaps because they are busy with work and family responsibilities. Land stewardship, I now realise, is all about control and trust. Giving control to a community to shape their own landscape and through it their destiny. Working to build the trust of the current land owners in communities.