Streets ahead: building co-operation in the housing sector

The breadth and scale of co-operative and mutual housing in Britain is greater than previously thought, according to research. The Human City Institute reveals its diversity in terms...

The breadth and scale of co-operative and mutual housing in Britain is greater than previously thought, according to research. The Human City Institute reveals its diversity in terms of scale, management objectives and location, and shows the sector is bigger than earlier studies have acknowledged.

Over 195,000 homes are now managed by co-ops and mutuals, according to the More Than Markets report. Of these, 54% are owned, with the remaining 46% managed on behalf of others.

The institute says there is currently more interest in co-operative housing than at any time in the last 40 years, but it adds that our European neighbours remain streets ahead. Just 1% of UK housing is co-operative, compared with 5–15% across the European Union.

The size of UK housing co-ops varies from less than 10 homes to over 15,000, with the average being 203 homes. Of the 974 co-operatives in the sector, 231 are social housing organisations managed by tenants, including tenant management organisations (TMOs, 9% of total resident and community-controlled organisations), tenant management co-ops (14%) and estate management boards (4%).

Community gateways and mutual housing organisations in Greater London, Preston, Liverpool, Rochdale and Wales, a relatively recent addition to the sector, manage just over two fifths of British mutual and co-operative housing.

Together with Scotland’s long-standing co-operative housing and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (the most recent stock transfer of local authority housing), these organisations have an annual turnover in excess of £531m, shareholder capital of £494m and over 200,000 members.

There is more interest in co-op housing than at any time in the last 40 years, according to research by Human City Institute
There is more interest in co-op housing than at any time in the last 40 years, according to research by Human City Institute

But the institute is concerned that there are only a handful of TMOs within housing associations. Of these, 11 are within one landlord, Watmos, which owns 2,700 homes in Walsall and Lambeth. The report says: “This should be a cause for concern for housing associations if they are to engage more actively with direct resident and community control of housing.”

The report goes on to to argue that mutual housing is more cost-effective than the social housing sector in general, and that there is growing evidence that rent arrears, vacancies and re-let times among mutual housing organisations are lower than those found in national social housing.

For example, it says, housing co-ops take 34 days on average to let a home, compared to 80 days for small housing associations – and just 4% of mutually managed homes fail to meet decency standards, compared to 10% for small housing associations.

Tenant Services Authority research shows that housing co-ops outscored all other landlords on customer service, repairs and maintenance, dealing with complaints, looking after communal areas, helping with housing benefit, health and safety and neighbourhood safety. The institute also found that satisfaction among tenants of housing co-ops was ahead of that in the social housing sector overall. In housing mutuals, almost 100% of tenants said they were satisfied.

The report adds that mutual housing offers potential answers for housing and community problems, as well as added social value. Just under 27% of housing co-op lettings went to applicants living in poor or overcrowded housing, compared to 20%  in all associations, for example.

The report says: “Whether by providing a mutually supportive environment for elderly people who value their ongoing contribution, or housing for young people who stand little chance of getting onto a receding housing ladder, or housing for families trapped in poor private renting, or different ways to provide housing for the vulnerable, homeless, disempowered and disenfranchised, the sector offers numerous possibilities.”

It points to “considerable case-study evidence” inferring that benefits not associated with housing are also offered to residents and the wider community by housing organisations managed by them, including tackling antisocial behaviour, fostering community well-being, developing social capital and providing pathways out of poverty.

The institute says co-operative housing has a major role to play in the UK’s mutual economy, and offers social housing providers an alternative to what it calls “marketisation and creeping commercialisation”.

“Our housing and neighbourhoods, more than any other part of the UK economy, reflect the inequalities and lack of voice that so many people face,” says Nic Bliss, chair of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing. “The good news is that, since the work of the 2009 Commission for Co-operative and Mutual Housing (CCMH), there’s been more interest in co-operative and mutual housing in the UK than at any period since the 1970s.”

In England, the coalition government has made housing capital finance available to develop community-led housing, and is in discussions about providing revenue funding.

The Homes and Communities Agency has supported the CCMH’s recommendations on exploring finance to develop the sector, while the Welsh Assembly government has committed to developing co-operative housing and is supporting a set of pioneer projects.

“Many local authorities have asked the sector how to develop co-operative and mutual housing strategies,” says Mr Bliss. “And most importantly, local communities are exploring co-operative housing options.

“Since the 1980s, all governments – including the coalition government – have continued to support the development of TMOs in social housing. The National Federation of TMOs has continued to work in partnership with government to expand the sector, and the development and success of Watmos Community Homes has been exciting and pioneering.

“Since the Confederation of Co-operative Housing developed the community gateway model in the early 2000s, community gateways and mutuals have sprung up in England and Wales and now the tenant- and staff-owned Rochdale Boroughwide Housing has expanded the model further.”

More Than Markets recommends building on this success by extending the UK’s 1% co-operative housing up to European Union norms, and says at least 500,000 social homes should be moved into co-operative ownership over the coming decade.

It calls for a Tenants Mutual Finance Initiative, operating in similar ways to the Children’s Mutual, providing savings and borrowing opportunities for tenants. The report says: “The tenants mutual would not only enable expansion of co-operative approaches in social housing but would fund new affordable housing development and aid renewal of community infrastructure, while providing tenants with affordable credit opportunities.”

It also recommends developing a new ‘co-operative tenancy’ to replace the current provider-consumer relationship between social landlords and tenants.

According to the Human City Institute, the discovery of the value of mutualism by the Conservative Party in relation to the ‘big society’ and the rekindling of interest by Labour, especially in Scotland and Wales, have opened up a space into which existing and fledgling co-ops can expand.

The Confederation of Co-operative Housing, the Community Land Trust Network, the Cohousing Network, the National Self-Build Association and others are working together through the new Mutual Housing Group (MHG) in partnership with decision-makers to help develop a viable movement.

Nic Bliss adds: “The MHG has set realistic targets for the development of new mutual homes and schemes. But the current considerable interest and activity could result in a snowball effect that sees many more mutual homes in the future.

“The message from the co-operative and mutual housing sector to local communities, local authorities and housing associations is, we’re here to work with you. Tell us what sort of mutual housing you want, and we’ll help you develop it. This is more than markets. It’s about people, community, democracy and homes.”

  • For for further case studies on housing co-operatives in the UK and further afield, click here.
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