Meet … Blase Lambert, CEO at the Confederation of Co-operative Housing

He says co-ops need to be more flexible in their approach to get new housing projects off the ground

Blase Lambert is CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, a trade body for housing co-ops in the UK. An economist by profession, he has been involved in the co-operative housing sector for 21 years.

How did you get involved in co-operative housing?

I moved into a housing co-op in 1997 in north east London. Shortly after, I attended a general meeting, because the co-op was proposing to up my rent by 17%. I wanted to understand the reasons for such a significant increase. By the end of the year, I was on the management committee; within a week
I was treasurer. Shortly after that, I saw a flier for the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) annual conference and went along to see what was going on outside of my own housing co-op. At the end of that meeting I was on CCH’s board. I was chair within six months and the rest is history.

What was it like moving into a housing co-operative?

It was different. If a private sector landlord had announced a 17% rent increase, my choice would have been to pay or move out. Within the housing co-op, I had the option to go to a meeting with other members, exercise my democratic rights as a shareholder within the organisation and shape a different approach to how it was running.

It also provided me with access to affordable housing in Zone 2 in Central London, which I would not have been able to access otherwise. It gave me the ability to build on my life circumstances, get into work and develop a career.

It was a real eye-opener: a form of housing within the rental sector that gave me a genuine stake and the freedom to shape my own home and my own outcome from that. It was very liberating.

What are the main challenges faced by housing co-ops in the UK?

These vary depending on the geographic area. The main challenge in London and the South East is access to land. London is a tier one global investment location for real estate investment – and housing co-ops, whether start-ups or existing, are competing in an over heated market place, with an extreme lack of available land. 

In other areas, one challenge is the lack of demand for housing. In areas that have deindustrialised and depopulated, the challenge isn’t finding land, it’s finding people who want to live there.

In general, the challenge is having to adapt to and compete within local housing markets. This is not a challenge that housing co-ops in other countries have to deal with in the same way, particularly where there is more impetus from public policy to support and favour the co-op option in housing.

In current government policy we have been brought up to a level playing field with other players in the market. We have not been promoted ahead of them, but this is still a significant improvement from where we were a couple of years ago and for the previous 30 years before that.

How can co-ops able to benefit from the government’s Community Housing Fund (CHF)?

The CHF made £163m available to support the community-led housing sector. It launched in 2018 and the bid deadline closes on 31 December 2019. 

Since the 1980s, we have a specific fund for our organisations. In the previous three years, we had to compete for affordable housing grants, which were usually awarded to big housing organisations who have the advantage of size, mainstream profile, massive lobbying power and access to the lending and investment communities in a way that is not available to small grassroots organisations. CHF gives us a route to finance that wasn’t available to us previously. So that’s a significant change. We no longer have to compete for money against everybody else in a market that is stacked against us.

We now have our own ring-fenced money that we can access, but that’s not to say that some of the other challenges around land supply or the intransigence of certain public bodies have changed.

CCH has established a national network of regional support organisations which have been working in local communities to support individual co-ops and community housing schemes to bring forward their proposals to the CHF.

We developed a national training and accreditation programme for advisors and professionals working within the sector through those regional hubs, which is now recognised by the Chartered Institute of Housing as the trade body for housing professionals. 

We also secured funding from government to undertake additional promotion marketing – referred to as movement building work – which helped us build our profile nationally to promote the CHF, Power to Change and similar opportunities down through this pyramid structure.

How can housing co-ops strike a balance between providing affordable rents and investing in new developments?

Housing co-ops stopped developing in the late 1980s, whereas others (housing associations particularly) carried on developing and had to increase rents to pay the cost of private finance. This is the key reason why we have a burgeoning housing benefit bill in this country, because we moved subsidy in public housing away from bricks and mortar capital subsidy over to the revenue side. They thought: ‘We’ll just push the rents up, the benefit system will pay for it’. That is the main reason why co-op housing rents are lower than those of housing associations, because we did not increase them to subsidise development.

What co-ops need to do is develop a more flexible approach in the future. If you want to develop 10 low rent properties, there may need to be some other development put in the mix to help that happen. You might trigger the development of 20 homes; 10 of which get sold, 10 of which you keep as low rented properties. It’s about behaving more as a nimble developer rather than expecting to be given 100% grants just to build social housing. That is not going to happen.

CCH head of policy, Nic Bliss, travelled to Canada last year funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. What can UK co-operatives learn from co-ops there?

The main thing Nic learnt is that co-ops in other countries provide housing options for everybody; in England the housing co-op option was traditionally seen as a subset of social housing. 

What he discovered in Canada was mixed 10 year developments, flexible approaches to who you seek to house and how you enable people to co-operate, and how you create macro level structures to bring in development and the financial expertise to make that happen. 

Where do you see the sector in 10 years?

I hope that in a decade we will have had a significant number of new co-ops coming into existence, and existing co-ops growing their ownership. Our aspiration is 10,000+ new homes over the next 10 years being developed by the sector – currently our sector only has 50,000 homes. I also want to see those organisations well governed and sustainable. 

The last time government invested in the growth of our sector, 500 new co-operatives were developed; but within five years that slimmed down to less than 250 through governance failure, lack of financial viability and similar issues. 

That’s a key component of what our training and accreditation programme is about, helping advisers and professionals working in communities to succeed, so that we grow stronger and become more sustainable.