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Hurdles to success

Assessing the modern day legacy of Robert Owen, Allan Shepherd argues that community-led housing innovates through participation rather than paternalism.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Newtown born industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen. Owen made the unlikely journey from apprentice to mill owner before emerging as one of the most prominent Utopian thinkers of the Victorian age, becoming what we might call today a global influencer.

The gift of Robert Owen was to be in possession of wealth and humanity. He created in New Lanark Mills some of the most advanced social programmes for housing and education of its day, believing that a person’s environment had an impact on the formation of character. Especially in what he called ‘the rising population’. He was of course what we would call today paternalistic, interested in his own ideas and in sending them downwards.

After selling his mill he took his enormous wealth and gambled it on an idea he had for a visionary housing community in what became the ironically named town of New Harmony in Indiana, US. The community would be self sufficient and bring together people from all walks of life to offer up a different co-operative vision of society. Owen bankrolled the venture, buying the town and employing four directors to run it. He allowed three more people from the community to join the board but of course retained decision making power. The whole project was a catastrophic failure and cost Owen much of his fortune.

New Harmony is sometimes cited as an early example of community led housing but it is easy to confuse the creation of some types of intentional community with community led housing. Community led housing gives communities themselves a leading and lasting role in the provision of their housing. It intends to be inclusive and involving. It does not rely on a visionary founder, paternalism or un-democratic decision-making processes. It does instead rely on the successful creation of teams, systems of governance, financial models, conflict resolution processes, and the availability of suitable land, housing stock and funding.

Often it involves a steep learning curve for members. They can see and feel the housing crisis and taste what might be a solution but often don’t have all the skills and knowledge to bring it together, even when some of the members are architects, builders, surveyors, engineers and other housing professionals. There is a lot to learn but there is also a lot to gain, and wellbeing studies carried out by the Wales Co-operative Centre and other organisations show the clear long-term benefits to members of having more democratic control over their housing situation, combined with greater sociability that comes with creating and running CLH projects together.

Community Led Housing today takes the basic good intentions of Owen and innovates through participation rather than paternalism. The risen population sending its ideas upwards. The members themselves talk about the possibilities, find the issues, solve the problems. Most of the successful ones don’t try to solve all the world’s problems through housing either. Better to be in and housed and building community than endlessly recycling discussions.

Accredited community led housing advisors like myself and my colleagues at the Wales Co-operative Centre can offer support, advice and access to a very small amount of financial assistance but in the end the community has to do it. And even though one of the key attributes to any successful CLH projects is resilience I am continuously amazed by the level of innovation created by the communities themselves. The successful community projects become Olympic hurdle gold medalists. Their race to housing is sometimes a long distant steeplechase but we must remember that as well as housing they are also building long-term relationships, confidence, knowledge.

Take for example Tir Cyffredin, a new housing coop I am supporting in Machynlleth (picture above). They are aiming to create seven close to social rental rooms in a shared house by raising £140,000 in loan stock investment – about half the project cost. Housing co-operatives can not access social housing grant so they have to be self-financing. Another housing coop in Brighton – SEASALT student housing cooperative ­- have worked in partnership with a Community Land Trust to raise funds through a community share issue. They will create one student house on a seven-year rotating lease as an answer to the rising student housing crisis. A much larger project in Leeds – Chapeltown Cohousing – has come up with an innovative financial model to create a mixed tenure development that puts local housing need and diversity first.

All of these projects rely on partnerships in one way or another, with funders, developers or other community organisations. Many CLH projects have successfully partnered with housing associations to deliver on their community vision of social, affordable and mixed tenure developments. The Older Women’s Cohousing Project in London (picture above), Cornwall Community Land Trust and the Threshold Centre are three that spring to mind and there are many more in England, including the Patterdale Community Land Trust/Eden Housing Association development. This partnership being particularly relevant for those communities in North, Mid and West Wales who have similar levels of second home ownership to Patterdale and other parts of Cumbria. In fact Community Led Homes publishes a partnership guide on its website which lists 11 different ways housing associations and community led housing groups can work together. (https://www.communityledhomes.org.uk/)

Having worked in the environment and housing sector for the past thirty years and having lived in a co-housing community and a housing co-operative for about ten of these years I was thrilled to be able to introduce Minister for Climate Change Julie James SM to our monthly Communities Creating Homes network event in June. With a new and very challenging social housing target to deliver in this term of government the Minister not only reaffirmed her commitment to supporting community led housing and embedding co-operative principles into housing provision in Wales but called on it to be a “principle part of the housing solution.”

This has set us all a challenge to see what partnership models can be developed in Wales. We must be guided by what has gone before, learning from the good and the bad. We know that partnerships are not always straightforward and easy. But we also know that partnerships can deliver new types of housing projects that meet the needs of communities today, bringing together as they do a variety of tenures, providing additional affordable and social homes and increasing the wellbeing of residents. In this they meet our own goals as innovators, the goals of our government and of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. As Julie James said at our event, “For people to take more control of the way their housing is delivered and managed we have to have community led housing as part of the mix”.

You can watch Julie James opening our June network here, along with presentations from Optimised Retrofit and Nest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HERgdKeNQ10&t=692s

Allan Shepherd is a community-led housing  officer at Wales Co-operative Centre. He is on twitter @allan_shepherd or see www.allanshepherd.com

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