How a housing co-op is working to foster unity and cohesion in Leicester

The unrest that flared up last year in the city prompted the co-op to step in by launching its Belgrave Unity programme

A Leicester housing co-op, created to save much-loved homes from the bulldozer, continues to face down challenges more than 40 years later, working to soothe the ethnic tensions that flared up in the city last year.

Belgrave Neighbourhood Co-operative Housing Association (BNCHA) was launched in 1975 in response to the housing clearances that had seen 1.5 million houses in England and Wales declared unfit or demolished, displacing over 3.6 million people. This included many Victorian terraces in Leicester’s Belgrave district.

Keen to save what was left, residents chose the co-op model to give themselves greater control over their housing. The model offered them a direct say in policy development and decision-making, allowing them to participate in shaping their community and its services. They collectively owned and managed the co-op and shared the costs and responsibilities.

“By adopting the co-operative model, BNCHA was not only able to preserve the houses but also create a thriving, member-driven community,” says co-op chair Jaimini Bharakhada.

One of the residents leading the initiative was Shantilal Makwana, affectionately known as Mak. Having settled in Leicester in the early 1970s after fleeing war-torn Uganda, he became a driving force in the campaign against housing demolition and set up the co-op, which he chaired from 1979 until his death in April 2012. 

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“Under his leadership, our co-op evolved into the largest fully mutual co-operative housing association in the UK,” says Bharakhada, “becoming a strong and independent organisation as we know it today.” 

BNCHA now owns and manages 378 homes – 254 houses, 115 flats, three maisonettes and six bedsits. And its mission remains the same: to provide homes for people in need – individuals and families with low incomes who cannot afford to buy or rent in the private sector.

Its diverse membership includes families, individuals, couples of all ages, disabled people, and residents of the 21 flats in semi-independent living sheltered Loughborough Cottages site.

This diversity reflects the co-op’s commitment to social cohesion – which came under strain in 2022 when the city saw unrest between some members of the Hindu and Muslim communities.

“Many BNCHA tenant members were deeply shocked by these events and called on the co-op to take the lead in bringing the community together,” says Bharakhada.

The co-op answered with Belgrave Unity, a project to bring people and communities together, with a particular emphasis on developing young leaders as future custodians of the community. 

In March, a Belgrave Unity event brought together more than 120 local people alongside representatives of local community organisations. Speakers included chief constable Rob Nixon, who called for unity after last year’s disorder, and 12-year old Navya Mehta, the daughter of a BNCHA tenant member. 

“We should all be friends,” Navya, who was born and raised in Belgrave, told the crowd. “No matter where we come from, what we look like, whichever faith we are from, we should be kind to each other and help each other out. Please come forward and be part of Belgrave Co-op’s vision of bringing everyone together, ensuring that we all live side by side in harmony.”

At the event, locals highlighted community projects in need of progress. To that end,  a partnership was formed between community groups, police, councillors, secondary schools, De Montfort University and the University of Leicester to develop a three-year programme to progress Belgrave Unity’s objectives through a National Lottery funding bid.

Bharakhada says an inclusive environment for all tenants is a top priority for BNCHA. Initiatives include the Active Membership Strategy, launched in 2021 to enable its members to participate in the running of the co-op.

Jaimini Bharakhada (far right) with some of the co-op’s members

A management committee is elected by the tenant membership to make all the strategic and policy decisions for the co-op, while a member working group meets periodically to consider the co-op’s performance. 

The co-op also runs Let’s Talk surveys so tenant members can directly feed back their views into decision-making. And a complaints procedure allows tenants to raise problems with the management committee.

There are also workshops where members can participate in discussions on matters such as repairs and complaints handling.

Tenant members, and others, can volunteer to work in the BNCHA office and the co-op is looking to introduce a community champion scheme where tenant members can act as a local information point. The scheme aims to encourage tenants to be good neighbours through simple acts of kindness.

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In addition to the annual general meetings and special general meetings, which attract over 400 tenant members and their families, the co-op organises a range of informal community activities. This allows tenant members to discuss services with committee members and staff.

The Active Membership Strategy won the Confederation of Co-operative Housing’s national active membership award in 2022. “By involving our tenants in decision-making processes, we ensure that their voices are heard and that they play an essential role in shaping the co-operative,” says Bharakhada.

Further evidence of the strategy’s success came with a 2022 survey which showed that 73% of tenant members were satisfied that the co-op listens to their views and acts on them – an increase from 66% the previous year.

“We anticipate that this will improve further in our third annual survey, to be carried out shortly,” adds Bharakhada.

The result puts BNCHA ahead of the national average. According to a survey of 5,004 social housing residents commissioned by the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and carried out between 22 March and 11 May 2022, 65% of residents are satisfied with how well their home was maintained, while 21% are dissatisfied. 

Meanwhile the social housing regulator held a consultation that led to the launch of a new set of Tenant Satisfaction Measures. As of 1 April 2023, all registered social housing providers must collect and publish comparable information on areas such as repairs, safety checks and complaints. BNCHA had already been collating this information for two years.

“The impact of this requirement on the co-op has been very positive,” says Bharakhada, “confirming that we are on the right track. It has only further encouraged us to continue building upon the successful implementations we have already initiated. 

“The co-op’s readiness and early efforts have placed us ahead of the game in complying with the new regulations.”

Living at BNCHA also offers significant savings to tenant members at a time when inflation continues to drive the cost of living crisis. While average rents at BNCHA are £95 per week, private rents listed on Zoopla for Belgrave start from £183 and rise much higher. Even in the social sector, average rents in other housing associations in Leicester are 20% higher than those  at BNCHA.   

Inflation has slowed BNCHA’s asset management programme to renew and update its homes – but it has managed improvements to some homes that will help residents save on their energy bills.

The co-op has also implemented several initiatives to help tenant members cope with the cost of living crisis, such as a weekly social group to share information about support services, keeping homes warm and minimising the risk of damp. Members also receive guidance on managing expenses, navigating financial challenges, and making informed decisions during difficult economic times. 

Other activities include subsidised events and trips for members, offering social interaction, recreation, and relaxation without increasing pressure on their pockets.

“By offering cost-effective housing, a supportive community, and various initiatives to assist members during challenging times, BNCHA aims to be a source of stability and support for its tenant members amidst the cost of living crisis,” says Bharakhada.

 BNCHA has come a long way in 50 years, she adds. “After facing challenges following the passing of Mr Makwana, the co-operative has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent times. Over the past two and half years, we have experienced an amazing rebirth and are now thriving, with the co-operative and its tenant members at the forefront of our decision-making process.”

Now. BNCHA is getting ready to build on these achievements.

“Looking to the future, our main focus is to continue providing a vibrant and supportive environment for our members,” says Bharakhada. “We aim to maintain good governance and strong leadership, ensuring that the co-operative remains on a sustainable and successful path.

“While our primary objective is to deliver excellent services and support to our current members, we also have aspirations to expand and an ambition of sustainable growth. 

“One of our objectives is also to further develop Belgrave Unity to develop a strong and sustainable community for our tenant members and for other Belgrave residents – and, more broadly, for other communities in Leicester.”