What is community-led housing? Basically there are four main types – co-operative housing, co-housing, self-help housing and community land trusts.
Today, the sector is small in the UK compared with our neighbours on the near continent, and more needs to be done if it is to become mainstream including more support from government. A report from the Smith Institute, a left-of-centre think tank set up in memory of the late Labour leader John Smith, looks at some of the issues involved.
The report, Local housing, community living, asks how the community-led housing sector can be expanded either by scaling up or scaling out. In plain English, do we expand the sector by increasing the size of the existing players (scaling up) or increase the number of players in the field (scaling out)?
One does not necessarily preclude the other. The report, based on in-depth research, surveys and interviews, found that many of the schemes have been successful. They have been built to high standards and are genuinely affordable to people on modest incomes.
In recent years, there has been a substantial growth in the number of co-operative housing schemes in England and Wales. Many of these will be new-build while others will be tenant management organisations (TMCs).
Community housing mutuals and co-ops formed from voluntary stock transfer from local council housing stock have also been an important development – particularly in Wales where the Welsh government and the Wales Co-operative Centre have promoted several schemes.
In Rochdale, Salford and Merthyr Tydfil stock transfer schemes have progressed from being arms-length management organisations to fully fledged hybrid co-ops – that is, co-ops made up of tenants and staff.
More are likely to be in the pipeline. Westminster policy makers should learn from such developments, especially in Wales.
Co-housing schemes are similar to co-operative housing ones, only they are usually set up as ‘intentional communities’. They are about creating inclusive communities which belong to their residents. Everyone has their own front door key but residents manage the estate, share activities, eat together, etc.
Co-housing can be a way of combating the loneliness and isolation many people experience today. Where they differ from ordinary housing co-ops is that socialisation is obligatory; this might not suit everyone.
In the past, most co-housing schemes occupied large houses which had been converted into flats. Recently, new-build schemes have been set up. Lancaster Co-housing consists of 42 Passivhaus homes which are mainly leasehold.
It includes communal cooking and dining areas and a communal car pool. It was forward-funded by the members together with a loan from the Triodos Bank. Some members obtained mortgages through the Ecology Building Society. Visit www.lancastercohousing.org.uk to learn more.
Another innovative scheme is the LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds, which uses the mutual home ownership model. The scheme comprises 20 homes and a common house constructed using low carbon materials such as timber and straw. It is an eco-scheme which is partly self funded and partly by the HCA, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Leeds City Council. Visit www.lilac.coop to learn more.
One change in the law which would help community-led projects which use community land trusts relates to leasehold. The purpose of a community land trust is to take land out of the market place and make it available in perpetuity for the benefit of the community.
The land could be gifted by local authorities, public bodies, local benefactors or charitable organisations. At the moment, potential donors of land can be reluctant to gift land because of their concern that the land might be sold off at a later date to private individuals for private gain.
The Leasehold Reform Act 1967 gives all householders the right to buy the freehold of their house after they have been resident for the qualifying period of time. The Act should be amended so that community land trusts are exempt.
In the discussions with funders and community-led activists, the general consensus was that funding was not a critical issue as far as the development of community-led schemes was concerned. The view seemed to be if you had a good enough scheme, it should be possible to get the money to carry it out.
That may or may not be the case as far as small-scale community-led schemes are concerned. But what is clear is that the removal of the Empty Homes Community Grants programme could have a damaging effect on the ability of self-help schemes to undertake new programmes.
Between 2012 and 2015 the sector brought over 1,200 homes back into use. In doing so, there were also other community benefits such as employment and training opportunities for local people. The government should continue to support the excellent work that the self-help sector has been doing. Seed-corn funding – funds to get schemes off the ground – remains
a big problem, too. Simplifying planning procedures would also be a great help to small groups.
While funding may or may not be an issue with small-scale schemes, it is certainly a problem for registered providers who wish to carry out new-build or substantial regeneration/ rehabilitation schemes.
This is because the coalition government axed the social housing grants budget in 2010 by over 60%. In many instances, registered providers just abandoned any further new schemes. This applied both to housing associations and housing co-ops. Unregistered housing co-ops were not affected because they are not state-aided and raise their own funds quite independently.
The report concludes by suggesting that community-led housing groups should set up a country-wide network offering local support to emerging groups. Such a network could help by developing services such as advice and mentoring
A further serious problem for registered providers was the 1% annual cut in rents over four years imposed by the incoming Conservative government in 2015. This has caused massive problems for smaller housing associations and housing co-ops. The financial viability of some of these is very uncertain and forced mergers may be a result. The extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations (and possibly to housing co-ops) has added to the uncertainty.
And there are yet more worries for the sector, with the enforced sale of ‘higher value’ properties under the Housing and Planning Act 2016. The Act has already received the Royal Assent, and it will only be clear what its overall affects will be when we know what the final regulations are.
The report concludes by suggesting that community-led housing groups should set up a country-wide network offering local support to emerging groups. Such a network could help by developing services such as advice and mentoring. That would be useful but one does have to remember that community activists tend to be very independent and tough-minded.
Also, they are often quite local in their perspectives. That’s why they exist in the first place. The network should not duplicate the role of existing bodies.
The largest and most successful of these include the Confederation of Co-op Housing and its affiliates, Co-operatives UK and the UK Co-Housing Network. However, given goodwill all round, it would be advantageous if they were all able to co-operate.
But government has a role here too. It is time the government gave its support to community-led projects and actively encouraged these worthwhile projects.