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Community housing at a crossroads

Tom Archer charts the ebbs and flows of community-led housing in the UK.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and so it is that recent crises in UK housing have fuelled a growth in new forms of housing development and ownership. Community-led housing – where groups of residents and stakeholders try resolve local housing issues for themselves – has been resurgent in recent years.

These efforts have a long history in the UK, with various high-water marks.  In the early 20th century, the principles of co-operation were melded with conventional development practices to create new garden cities, as tenants took a financial stake in their land and housing. Various funding and regulatory changes created a surge in co-ownership in the 1960s-70s, creating over 40,000 new homes in this period. Later, the desire for community ownership and/or control of housing became manifest in models for tenant management, tenant control of housing associations and collectivist approaches to housebuilding. These different forms of community-led housing have waxed and waned for decades against the mainstream models for housing development.

In recent times the values of co-operation and collectivism have been recast, as activists have sought new remedies to the housing issues of the 21st century. Problems with housing affordability, housing quality, dereliction and worsening environmental conditions, slow or non-existent housing development, as well as exclusion from home ownership, have provided the basis for renewed interest in community-led solutions.

On a simplistic view, there has been an upsurge in these ‘alternative’ models. In England over the past 15 years, we have seen a rapid growth in community land trusts (CLTs). Led by residents and other stakeholders, these organisations own and control land and housing for community benefit. There has also been increased interest in co-housing, which asserts the importance of shared space and social interaction, often guided by other ethical or environmental concerns. Underpinning much of this are co-operative principles and their associated legal structures.

Ideas around self-help or self-managed housing, collective self-build and mutual homeownership are also being asserted. Data on new groups and projects suggests this diverse sector is rapidly expanding. A recent assessment of the ‘pipeline’ of community-led homes in England estimates that there are between 10,000-23,000 such homes being planned.

Broadhempston CLT, a self-build project in Devon

In Scotland, new powers for communities to acquire landholdings and estates fuelled developments in different directions, with rural housing and land funds providing the financial resources to plan and deliver community-led schemes. In central and northern Scotland over 100 community-led projects in rural areas have developed more than 1,000 affordable homes and other amenities in the last 20 years.

Achtercairn, Gairloch: Award-winning community-led development on a former derelict site in Gairloch, north- west Highlands

In Wales, as discussed elsewhere in this issue, housing co-operatives and other forms of community-led housing have emerged as the focus of joint support from Welsh Government and the Nationwide Foundation, delivered through the Wales Co-operative Centre’s Communities Creating Homes project. There is significant interest in these models among communities and government, with the recent Programme for Government stating the desire to support cooperative housing, community-led initiatives, and community land trusts. The Wales Co-operative Centre has recently called on Welsh Government to develop a revolving loan fund to help groups overcome some of the barriers faced and scale-up the movement.

The trajectory of this sector in Northern Ireland is less clear, though efforts are underway to bring together existing groups, and build networks of support. What binds community-led housing projects together – across our nations – is that they are often led by volunteers who care about their local area, but do not have the specific the knowledge and experience to plan and manage housing developments. They are motivated by local problems, such as unmet housing need, but have to drive projects forward often without staff or the requisite technical expertise.

Hence other advancements are crucial in understanding the growth of community-led housing in the UK. Across England, Scotland and Wales an enabling infrastructure has developed which provides advice and support to groups.

The Wales Co-operative Centre has been central to this in Wales, supporting groups to develop and then manage housing schemes. Similarly in Scotland, the Communities Housing Trust and South of Scotland Community Housing are advising and enabling groups from initial conception to housing construction and management. Across England there is a patchwork of around 30 enabling hubs with diverse operational and governance models, with some working closely with housing association partners, and others more independent. Investment in this infrastructure has been fundamental and has come from the UK government’s Community Housing Fund, and other partner such as Power to Change and the Nationwide Foundation.

But even with advice and support, many projects never come to fruition because of the hard financial realities of project planning, land acquisition and construction costs. Hence, new forms of funding and finance have emerged to meet the specific needs of community-led housing groups. This includes revenue grants to help groups in those crucial early stages of development, at-risk pre-development loans for groups who only have to repay if planning permission is granted, and other unsecured lending and blended finance (i.e. part-grant, part-loan).

The UK government and devolved administrations have offered capital and revenue grants to support community-led housing projects in recent years, and this has been vital to projects getting from the drawing board to reality. But restrictions and conditions on funding and short-term programmes have limited their effectiveness and have created dilemmas for many groups. Capital grants designed to promote standard tenures (for example, social and affordable rent), can rub up against the objectives of groups to offer alternative forms of ownership or enhanced levels of affordability.

We have also witnessed important changes in policy over recent years, particularly at a local level. Some local authorities have targeted the disposal of public assets specifically to community-led groups, for instance through land disposal policies. Other local authorities have adopted supplementary planning guidance which contains a presumption in favour of affordable, community-led housing projects. These changes – in some areas – have tipped the balance in favour of community-led schemes.

What progress has been made owes much to the efforts of community organisers, advocates and those national bodies who have sought to influence policy. New funding programmes, changes in legislation, and key exemptions (for instance on rules relating to ground rents) are testament to this advocacy. And the push for community-led housing has benefited from connections to so many other efforts and agendas, seemingly ever more relevant in a world with widening housing inequality, concentrated land ownership, increasing housing affordability, and the financialisation of housing and housing providers.

Despite this, the community-led housing sector currently stands at a crossroads.  Government funding in England is reducing, there are uncertainties around existing funds in other nations, and charitable funders increasingly focusing their resources on ‘Covid-19 recovery’. A significant pipeline of homes may never be delivered if access to funding and finance is not secured.  Now is the time to act, to ensure this small but important sector continues to grow and create valued, affordable homes.

Looking back to over preceding decades suggests there is much learn about the things that help and hinder community-led housing.  Maintaining the support infrastructure for community-led housing groups is critical, as is diversifying sources of funding and finances to cope with fluctuating grant regimes. With this in place, alongside continued interest in these approaches among communities and policymakers, we may see less ebb and more flow.

Dr Tom Archer is research fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University

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