Overcoming the barriers to co-op housing development in the UK

Interview with Blase Lambert, CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing

“We built up from a small organisation with three or four co-ops coming together and starting something up, to where we are today,” says Blase Lambert, CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing. “Our smallest member has got one house with four people living in it. Our largest member has 13,500 homes.”

The organisation aims to provide “a strong voice for the housing sector, both within the housing world but also more broadly in governments and regional government, promoting viable models of co-operative and mutual housing,” he adds. “We provide resources, support and advice to our members to assist them in delivering excellent governance and great housing services to their members to help build their membership models and systems, and we also provide networking events through our annual conference, regional forums, online webinars, training sessions and by turning up to events.”

Lambert knows first-hand the importance of housing co-ops. “I moved into one in 1996 in North London and I lived there for 11 years,” he says. After being there for 12 months he “wanted to do a little bit more than just live there,” so he started attending meetings and getting involved. And through that, he met his wife: “We were both committee members – I was the treasurer there and she was the chair for a period of time… I didn’t really see this sector as being a direction of travel for my life or my career, but it just sort of happened. I went to my first CCH conference in 1997 and I was chair a year later.”

The UK has a long history of relying on two fundamental tenure models: individual home-ownership and private renting. Alongside private renting, there is state provision of housing either through councils or through housing associations. “Ultimately all of those forms of housing are about the individual having an interface with the landlord,” says Lambert. “Co-op housing provides an alternative to that. The tenant is the landlord, and the landlord is the tenant. It’s about people working together to solve their housing problems.”

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“In this country, too many people have been forced into unaffordable home-ownership because that was the preferred option when perhaps a more collectable, co-operative form of joint ownership might be more appropriate.”

In the UK, co-op housing faces some fundamental legal, regulatory and financial obstacles. 

“The biggest challenge is that we are attempting to operate in a system that is not set up to benefit housing co-ops,” says Lambert. “The UK has no legislative framework for housing co-ops, unlike in other countries. We don’t even have a co-operative form of tenure – so we try to adapt ourselves to existing landlord and tenant legislation and land ownership models that were not created to benefit co-ops. Housing co-ops are much more prevalent in other parts of Western Europe largely because those governments pass legislation to make housing co-ops a viable and legal alternative.”

It is a similar issue with regulatory frameworks: “Much in the same way as with the legislative side of things, we’re trying to operate within a regulatory regime that was written for somebody else – controlling charities or controlling large housing associations and local authorities.”

Another challenge is that because the UK movement doesn’t have a history, the financial sector doesn’t have the products to respond to the needs of financing schemes.

“In many other parts of the world, the ability for people to come together to share what they’ve got – which may not be enough to provide something just for themselves – is a viable and realistic way of them moving their lives forward,” Lambert says. “Working collectively to form housing solutions can be an important bedrock for building lives.”

Images from the 2021 CCH conference; the 2022 event takes place on 14-16 October

He adds that It’s a slightly different picture in Western Europe, where housing co-ops tend to be driven by government policy. “Certainly outside of Western Europe I see it as being more about people not having the opportunity to access things like home ownership and market rent and therefore coming together out of necessity.”

Alongside his work at CCH, Lambert is treasurer of Cooperative Housing International (CHI – the International Cooperative Alliance’s sectoral organisation for housing), and through this, was recently appointed to the ICA board as one of four sectoral representatives.

“I’m keen to ensure that at board level the ICA has more of a strong voice from the sectors. I think that in the past – certainly in the time that I’ve spent within the housing element of the ICA – the sectors perhaps haven’t had as strong and influencing a voice as they should do and, after all, most of the members of the ICA come from the sectors. 

Related: UK housing co-ops at the 2021 CCH conference look to the SDGs

“I’m also really interested in getting into the work more generally of what the ICA does globally and in some small way hopefully adding some value to it, whether that’s around some of the common themes of work around sustainable development, co-operation between co-ops, the co-op identity work that’s being done, or in emerging themes. I’m looking forward to contributing to that in whichever way I’m able to.”

Sustainability is one of the leading topics at the 2022 CCH annual conference, taking place on 14-16 October at Chesford Grange in Kenilworth (Warwickshire), with the theme Sustainability – rethink:reset. The event is “designed to inspire you to look at the different ways we will all have to work, not in the future, but now”.

The conference will look at how housing co-operatives can adapt to the new requirements as set out in the Charter for Social Housing Residents and will explore how co-ops can work towards the transition to net-zero, and how homes can be made warm and healthy in an environmentally sustainable way. There will also be a focus on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all the United Nations member states in 2015, which “have the power to end poverty, fight inequality, and stop climate change”.

“Our conference has been designed to look at all these issues in more detail,” says Lambert, “to help you think about values, our responsibilities towards the environment, towards the most vulnerable, the planet, and to build a better future for everyone.”