Unearthing a forgotten grassroots story of co-operative housing

John Goodman reviews Andrew Bibby’s latest book, which looks at the co-partnership housing societies of the early 20th century

These Houses Are Ours – Co-operative and community housing alternatives 1870-1919, Andrew Bibby (Gritstone Publishing Co-operative, £18.95)

Andrew Bibby has become a specialist in rescuing important episodes in our co-operative past from the enormous forgetfulness of history – and we should be thankful for that. After All Our Own Work, his 2017 book on the Hebden Bridge Fustians, comes this story of how, in the early 20th century, co-partnership housing societies, springing up around the country, built thousands of co-operative homes.

Bibby quotes Johnston Birchall (the other main chronicler of this movement), who estimated that by 1912, 14 societies had built 6,595 houses for a population of 30,000-35,000 and that around 10,000 houses in total were built by 40+ societies before the movement ran out of steam after the First World War. 

Co-partnership? It was what we might today call a multi-stakeholder co-operative, in this case, a collaboration between consumers, investors and producers – although the latter weren’t much in evidence. Residents rented their homes from the society, of which they were in turn members – hence “all the members … own all the houses”. 

In theory, dividend was payable on the rent, as befits a consumer society (and housing co-ops are essentially consumer co-ops), but in practice, there was rarely a ‘divi’ after loan and share interest and running costs had been covered. And, crucially, investors too had voting shares, so that over the decades from the 1930s through to the 1990s most of the co-partnership societies demutualised either by selling the homes to their members or being taken over by property companies, usually Bradford Property Trust, now part of Grainger plc, ‘one of the UK’s largest professional landlords’. Bibby’s sleuthing has turned up just ten survivors that today provide about 750 homes.

Whilst a few of the societies were genuinely bottom-up initiatives, with political activists among their resident members, most, we learn, were promoted by a remarkably energetic band of establishment figures – businessmen, professionals, politicians, even aristocrats – motivated as much by their Liberal political ideology as by a desire to provide decent homes for the ill-housed. They believed it was possible to reconcile and defuse the conflicting interests of capital and labour, landlord and tenant. Many of them were also leaders and activists in the labour co-partnership movement and were simply applying this political ideology in another sector. Unlike with the productive societies, they (and their friends) also provided a lot of the funding for these housing schemes, which were capital-hungry, and the landowners amongst them sometimes contributed below-cost land. Bibby astutely relates this surge in philanthropy to increasing social conflict at the time and the ruling class’s fear of working class unrest.

Related: Andrew Bibby discusses These Houses Are Ours with Natalie Bradbury

In a sub-theme of the book, before moving on to the main plot and returning to it from time to time, Bibby gives an account of the retail societies’ extensive early forays into housebuilding (for sale or rent) and the provision of mortgages for their members, prompted by their surplus of capital and a realisation that decent homes were as important as decent food. A 1920 survey revealed that they’d already invested at least £8.2m in housing, equivalent to about £450m today. In keeping with their support for a ‘bonus to labour’ (extensively explored by Bibby in his Hebden Bridge Fustians book) major figures in the consumer movement (Holyoake, Greening, Neale) had also been outspoken supporters of – and investors in – these co-partnership societies. Indeed, one of the ten survivors was set up by CWS employees in Burnage, south Manchester. But as the consumer movement turned its back on the labour co-partnerships and political Liberalism and towards the Labour Party, so it lost interest in the associated housing co-partnership movement and housing generally. It’s time, by the way, that we had thorough account of the retail societies’ housing ventures. 

An important strand of the co-partnership housing story, extensively evidenced by Bibby, is its intertwining with the Garden City/Suburb movement. Key individuals had a foot in each camp and many co-partnership housing schemes were situated in the Garden Cities and Suburbs. That chimes, in its modernism, with a fascinating chapter on the role of women in co-partnership housing, which turns up the idea of ‘co-operative housekeeping’ – shared facilities for cooking, eating and laundry, startlingly redolent of today’s cohousing movement.

If good design was a factor for success then so was access to state funding in the form of the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), founded in 1793 and still in existence though since 2020 absorbed into the Treasury as the UK Debt Management Office, which provided 75% long term loans for most of the housing schemes.

Another key insight that emerges from the book is that co-partnership housing – like the retail co-operatives – served not the poorest section of the population but the skilled working class and lower middle class. Rent levels and the requirement for residents to invest in the society, sometimes as much as £50 (about £7,500 today), made this inevitable.

In focusing on the rise of co-partnership housing, Bibby devotes less space to the multiple causes of its stagnation and decline: government housing policy after WWI turns towards an ever more central role for local authorities, public finance dries up as access to the PWLB is cut off, building costs and interest rates rise, state rent controls are introduced, restrictions on Industrial & Provident Societies tighten, the societies’ co-operative culture dwindles and the leaders become disenchanted with democratic governance (or more likely were never much enchanted with it). Then along comes Thatcherism and most of the remaining societies demutualise or sell out, leaving just those ten survivors.

At the end of the book is a comprehensive gazetteer, useful as far as it goes, but the work cries out for a statistical annex, tabulating how many homes were provided, by whom, where and when, who lived in them, how the schemes were financed, and their fate. Perhaps in a while, when his book has inspired other researchers to smoke out any further examples that he failed to find (there can’t be many) Bibby or another ardent researcher will present us with the missing annex.

Unlike retail consumer co-ops, which compete on equal terms in a relatively open market for market share, turnover and profitability, housing is only a quasi-market, utterly dependent on external factors over which it has no influence, such as government policies, state regulation and interest rates. Bibby’s book illustrates beautifully what can be achieved in a benign environment and what can happen when that environment turns sour. at least in the UK.

At the same time, co-operators need to inspect their own history, which for a movement suffused with nostalgia they seem strangely reluctant to do. These Houses are Ours demonstrates that even in hostile times co-operatives can take steps to safeguard their future by adopting the right structures and maintaining a democratic, participative culture. The ten survivors are with us today because they gradually bought out external investors and they took care to maintain their community ethos and quality of life. The current cohousing movement is successful and safe partly because it similarly attends to community life and has no outside investors with voting power. Community land trusts’ structures and finances make them resilient. The same is true of housing co-operatives, although the hostile environment in which they exist has tended to make them inward looking, with a focus on keeping rents low rather than using their assets to expand the sector, a tension they share with the survivors and that Bibby highlights in the book’s concluding chapter.

200 years ago people started banding together to feed themselves and each other properly, creating the retail consumer co-operative movement. Shelter is an equally basic human need, which capitalism in the UK has failed to meet for a huge number of people. In many other countries providing homes has been – and remains – central to the co-operative economy. Perhaps if the British co-operative movement took more account of its history – and took inspiration from this book – it could happen here.