Housing co-operatives explored the fast-moving policy context for the sector during their annual conference in Kenilworth on 10-11 May.
A 2016 report by the Smith Institute showed that community-led housing represents only 0.3% of new housing developed in England and comprises less than 0.7% of the housing stock.
To address the need for more community-led housing, in 2018 the UK government launched the second phase of a fund. In response, the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) joined Locality, the National Community Land Trust Network and UK Cohousing to set up Community Led Homes partnership, aiming to make the sector a mainstream housing choice.
CCH is also building partnerships with national, regional and local government, said chief officer Blasé Lambert. He added that co-ops needed to take the lead on this in their local areas and come forward with successful proposals for new developments. Working with local authorities will be crucial, he told delegates, and could enable co-ops to have access to land and affordable loan finance.
Nigel Kersey, team leader at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, is responsible for the Community Housing Fund. He told delegates what the government expected from the sector.
He said ministers would put money into a specific sector if that sector were to deliver more housing than other sectors, based on the concept of additionality of built developments. The government will also take into account how housing projects would deliver community cohesion, diversity, participation and resilience.
Housing co-ops deliver housing in areas where other sectors can’t reach, including small sites, difficult sites, he added. These are sites where the community wants housing built but which do not attract the interest of conventional developers. Community-led housing can often get planning permission where conventional development cannot.
Yet the UK is lagging behind other European countries in terms of the existing co-operative housing stock. Mr Kersey thinks there is potential to grow community-led housing but the main challenge is raising awareness about the sector.
“The reason the sector doesn’t do more is because it’s not culturally there yet. We don’t understand as a nation community-led housing,” he said, adding that co-ops should not be introspective and congratulate themselves all the time.
The sector also needs permanent institutional changes which can continue this work after the money tap is turned off, he said. The government is more interested in supporting housing projects that would become financially sustainable.
“You cannot just rely on government hand-outs forever,” he said, adding that the sector needs to be more commercially savvy and less reliant on capital grants. New developments could also include a small number of market-sold homes, in a development of 15 or 10 co-op housing or CLT housing, he suggested.
“Some people have an ethical aversion to including market-sold housing but if it means you’re standing on your own feet, why not?” he said.
With a spending review approaching, the government has launched a call for information on community led housing, which is open until 31 May. Co-ops can use this opportunity to present proposals for delivering housing and ask for the Community Housing Fund to be continued. Mr Kersey warned that for this to happen, the sector must demonstrate its potential, and prove a massive pipeline of housing was going to be delivered if it was given more time.
“The less you rely on grants, the more you’ll be able to stand on your own two feet and the more you’ll be able to secure from the government for the sector,” he said.
Delegates also heard from Rose Seagrief, who leads on the Homes in Community Hands Programme of independent charity Power to Change.
The programme provides support and grants to help community business groups progress projects that build or refurbish well- built, affordable and future-proof homes designed around the needs of local people.
As part of the programme, Power to Change awards grants averaging £50,000. One of the businesses who benefited from funding is Homebaked, a co-operative community and community land trust in Liverpool.
The project received an initial £146,200 helped the bakery grow its trading income by increasing its production capacity, helping it to obtain bigger catering contracts, including with neighbouring Anfield stadium. A second grant of £215,694 was allocated by Power to Change in 2017, which allowed refurbishment of the upper floor of the bakery, developing affordable housing for local people and reanimating the local high street.
The terrace where housing is being developed was transferred to a newly established community land trust. As part of the initiative, young people will receive training to refurbish the flats and gain qualifications and work experience. The flats will then be used to provide good quality, affordable accommodation for young people from Anfield.
Power to Change’s next round of funding will be granted to energy businesses. Housing co-ops could apply to enable them to become more eco friendly, said Ms Seagrief.
Already, a number of co-ops and community land trusts across England are helping to deliver more affordable homes.
Tenant management organisation Bushbury Hill Estate Management Board has responsibility for about 840 council homes in Low Hill, Wolverhampton. The organisation was set up in 1998 as a limited company but all tenants are shareholders. Their first development experience saw them revamp an old pub in Wolverhampton into affordable flats. Tenants moved into the flats at the former Bushbury Arms pub in 2016. A total of 38 flats were developed.
For this development, BHEMB worked with housing association the Wrekin House Trust, which bought the Bushbury Arms site. BHEMB negotiated a lettings plan with the council and now manages the homes, in agreement with WHT.
The organisation has identified other potential development sites. With one in three tenants in their 60s, they would like to downsize to a bungalow. BHEMB submitted a bid for funding through the Community Housing Fund in partnership with Wolverhampton Council and Wolverhampton Homes.
They have considered other sites that could be used to develop similar projects, including a former Low Hill Methodist church and minister’s house and a former community facility Bushbury Magic Gardens is a potential site. BHEMB is currently working with the council to explore these options while applying for CHF grants.
Sanford Housing Co-op in London is also exploring building more homes on the site it owns. The co-operative was established in 1973 as the UK’s first purpose-built housing co-op. It now has 14 shared houses and a block of six flats across a one-acre site.
With £12,000 funding from the CHF, they carried out pre-planning work, engaging architects and developing an initial design. They also set up a community land trust with the aim of bringing co-ops together to build a close network and bring funds, knowledge and provide more housing in the area.
In Birmingham, 12 organisations joined together to create the Birmingham Community Homes Enabled Hub (BCH), to raise awareness of community-land trusts, make them part of mainstream and influence policy landscape as well as support and enable the delivery of projects.
So far, BCH has engaged with more than 20 new groups and organisations who are now interested in community led housing, all in an early stage of development.
“This is the time to prove our case,” added Afzal Hussain, chief officer at Witton Lodge Community Association, a founder member of BCH.
CCH chief executive officer also Blase Lambert encouraged housing co-ops to be flexible in their approach.
“Quite clearly this is a significant investment by the government at micro level, enabling existing and new organisations to come forward with their proposals for development of new housing, these can be owned, managed or stewarded by the community.
“It is not about just one model of ownership of tenure, there is flexibility here for community to bring what their need for their area. He added that CCH would do research on macro level organisations over the next six months and explore how to bring together a structure to secure funding at better rates.