Transforming derelict or unused land

There are a range of potential benefits that are connected to taking on greater responsibility for, and control of, the derelict or unused land in your local area. They include:

  • People care about land and unused spaces
  • It can be beneficial for the people involved
  • It can be a catalyst for new partnership opportunities
  • Productive land can host new services
  • It can be a resource itself.

By land, we are referring to land not formally used and managed as defined public spaces, such as parks including ‘brownfield’ land – that is land that has been used for something else in the past and is now derelict or unused.

Challenges for reclaiming land

These are the common challenges that communities face when looking to use, or improve, a piece of derelict, or underused land in their neighbourhood.

  • Time: These projects typically take longer than people think they will. What might look like a simple clear-up task on the surface, can turn out to be more complicated.
  • Finding the owner: It can sometimes be particularly hard to find out who owns the site in the first place, particularly if it has been unused for a long time, or if current ownership is not obvious. The Land Registry is a good place to start as it holds ownership details on registered land, but not all land is registered. Speak to your local authority and talk to people who have lived in the area for a while to find out more about the ownership history of the land.
  • Contamination: Sites that have been derelict for some time might be contaminated with heavy metals, oil or gas. This may mean that you cannot grow food for consumption. Finding out what the site was previously used for will help, and your local authority should have records. The Environment Agency is also responsible for some contaminated sites.
  • Waste disposal: Often the first job will be clearing a site, whether of overgrown vegetation, fly-tipped waste, or both. There will likely be costs associated with this and you will need to consider insurance, and any other risks that the removal of this type of waste might pose. The risks posed will vary by site so we recommend talking to your local authority before getting started.
  • Money to get started: A lot can be done by volunteers and with donated materials. But you are likely to need some money, whether ‘capital’ money to pay for equipment, materials, or acquiring the land, or ‘revenue’ money to pay for legal fees, design fees and people’s time.
  • Money to keep it going: If this is a long-term project you need to think about how you will keep it going. Again, volunteers can do a lot, but you may need to find regular, albeit small amounts of money year after year. Are there ways that the site can earn money? Or will you need to ask for donations and obtain grants?

Types of tenure involved in reclaiming land

  • Informal agreement
  • Service Level agreement
  • Management agreement
  • Licence to occupy
  • Lease
  • Freehold ownership.

Formal legal tenure can be a complex area to negotiate and we recommend that you seek appropriate legal advice before entering into an agreement to take on the responsibility for managing land.

Steps for reclaiming derelict and underused land: A practical checklist to get you started

  1. Ownership: Who owns or leases the land?
  2. What do people want and what can they offer?
  3. Responsibilities: Who has responsibility for safety/fly tipping etc?
  4. What powers do you have as a community?
  5. Who else might have an interest?
  6. What kind of control do you need?

For our full guide to Transforming derelict or underused land through community-led models, including models of community involvement and case studies please view the resource below.

View Transforming derelict or underused land through community-led models resource