The Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) held its annual conference in Cardiff from 24-26 July, with delegates discussing the sector’s success in Wales, the need to promote the movement’s strengths and the potential threat from welfare reforms and the Right to Buy scheme.
Housing co-operatives continue to grow in Wales, where the government supports the development of a variety of co-operative housing models.
In 2012 the government sponsored the Co-operative Housing Project to stimulate and increase the supply of co-operative housing in Wales.
It started with eight pioneer schemes and now comprises 25 schemes at varying stages of development. Three of the original schemes, in Newport, Cardiff and Carmarthen, have received a total £1.9m social housing grant.
With funding from the Welsh government, the Wales Co-operative Centre provides support to communities, local authorities and housing associations to develop co-operative housing schemes.
The Welsh government’s support was crucial, the centre’s Derek Walker told delegates. He added that the CCH also made a vital contribution: “We knew about co-ops, but we didn’t know about housing. CCH didn’t have any membership or contacts in Wales, so it’s been mutually beneficial.”
Nic Bliss, head of policy for CCH, said the confederation was working to create an alliance on community-led housing to make sure there was a message that went out to the government as well as the public.
“We are the antidote. The first housing crisis happened because of unsustainable home ownership,” he said. “The message from Wales is that you can adapt the principles of what we are doing to most circumstances and make things happen. The hardest bit is, where are the people coming from who are going to drive this forward?”
Rhidian Jones, head of affordable housing at the Welsh government, described how the collaboration with the co-op sector came about.
“The minister was keen to do something in terms of legislation,” she said. “The Housing Act of Wales was passed in 2014 and includes a section on co-operative housing. The act lifts the bar on fully mutual co-op to grant assured tenancies and it creates a new ground for possession which will allow lenders to repossess the properties if members default on the payments.”
The government did research around need and demand, spent time exploring the mutual home ownership model and provided funding to the Wales Co-op Centre to host a project manager.
Mr Jones thinks there is an opportunity for the co-op model to reach the health and social sectors.
“Welsh co-ops generate more than £1bn in income a year and employ 7,000 people,” he said.
“Co-operative housing can contribute to this further – the current minister is going to visit Home Farm Village Housing Co-op in September and she’ll see the difference that scheme has brought.”
Home Farm Village Housing Co-op in Cardiff is another of the 25 schemes developed with funding from the Welsh government, and its being developed by Cadwyn Housing Association, with 41 co-op houses and flats for rent.
The properties have more green spaces and offers tenants more choice in decoration.
The model is sustainable, he said, enabling Cadwyn to pay its loans sooner. Cadwyn is now looking to see if there is potential for other co-op schemes, as well as whether any of their existing schemes could switch to the co-op model.
“The future for housing co-ops in Wales is positive,” he said.
But the sector faces challenges, said Mr Walker. One is to maintain political support. With an election next year, the Wales Co-operative Centre is working on developing a manifesto for the sector.
“We hope we will see parties in power that will support this agenda,” he added.
“We need to support the people moving into these co-ops, so they continue to be co-ops. How to support that is a big job. We also want to continue with this excellent pipeline of co-op housing schemes.”
One worry is the chance that Right to Buy could be extended to housing associations.
“You need to raise evidence about what’s different about co-op housing and show it brings added value,” said Rhidian Jones.
Mr Palmer added: “The Welsh government has said that some local authorities have already stopped the Right to Buy in their area.”
Two thirds of respondents to a consultation on the future of the Right to Buy scheme in Wales said they believed it should not be permitted there.
“In a co-op, it destroys the very co-operative,” said Mr Palmer.