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Wales Co-operative Centre – People powered homes

With local authority elections around the corner, Hugh Russell gives some thoughts as to how newly elected council members can take a different approach to housing.

The barriers people face across the country to accessing and maintaining secure accommodation in the communities they wish to live in are as diverse as they are familiar. We know that an overabundance of holiday homes presents issues to the long-term futures of Welsh language communities; we know that young people trying to find accommodation that won’t push them into housing poverty are short of options all over the country; we know, too, that we have an aging population, far too many members of which face loneliness and isolation as they grow older, as a result of their housing situation.

None of these complex housing challenges can be solved by one group alone. As with the rapid response to help people off the streets and into accommodation at the start of the pandemic for instance, a partnership approach to meeting the challenge of delivering sufficient affordable accommodation across Wales is key and it is for local authorities, who have demonstrated time and time again their vital role in addressing Wales’s housing crisis, for whom this article is specifically written.

Welsh Government has set the tone for Wales’s collective priorities over the coming years with a Programme for Government, agreed in partnership between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, which gives great precedence to housing. Decarbonisation, legislative reform and the much trumpeted 20,000 homes for social rent target are all covered within this document, but it is the commitment to ‘support cooperative housing, community-led initiatives, and community land trusts’ which is the subject of this article and an area in which local government input is set to be crucial.

Newly elected, or re-elected, local authority members facing the housing challenges set out above (and more) would be excused for perhaps feeling daunted by the scale of the obstacles in front of them, but community-led housing (a catch-all term used to cover co-operative housing, co-housing, community-land trusts, etc) can offer an approach for local government representatives which will enable their constituents to meet their own housing needs in partnership with developers.

What’s more, the approach of enabling and supporting communities to address their own housing needs has been demonstrably successful in a huge variety of different contexts, both within the UK and further afield, with many lessons to learn and precedents to follow. While examples of recent community-led initiatives in Wales are not massive in number, there is a growing movement of communities seeking to deliver perpetually affordable homes for local people, supported by the Communities Creating Homes programme at the Wales Co-operative Centre, which is looking to change this.

One such example, which will particularly interest local authority members who are working in areas popular with holiday home owners, is the work of Mull and Iona Community Trust. Working across two islands on the West coast of Scotland, in a community where the school faced closure threats due to low attendance, and with support from the local authority, Argyll and Bute Council, the Trust has brought forward two schemes of beautiful, affordable housing for local residents, doubling the roll at the school both times.

A different example, demonstrating what can be done on a tight, urban infill sight in, is Bunker Housing Co-op in Brighton. Using cross laminated timber panels which were erected on site, the group behind Bunker have produced attractive, warm and affordable homes on a small site behind a row of existing homes which had been used for garages once but had become an eyesore and attractive to fly-tippers.

In both of these examples, supportive local authorities have been pivotal in enabling progress on development of community-led housing and a co-operative relationship has developed (indeed, for Bunker, one of its four aims is to ‘to work with Brighton & Hove City Council (BHCC) to maximise the use of available land that is unsuitable for mainstream social housing development, for community self-build development’).

Forward-thinking local authorities in Scotland and England (the latter where community-led housing has historically received significant financial backing from central government) have implemented policies and approaches which offer a blueprint for their Welsh counterparts to follow, in order to effectively support community groups to deliver homes. Specific examples, which the Communities Creating Homes team would urge Welsh authorities to consider include:

Land disposal policies which prioritise community groups

Accessing land on which to develop affordable housing is a consistent challenge to community groups. The support of local authorities in this regard can make or break a community’s plans for homes. A brilliant example of how a local authority can constructively intervene in this area is to be found in Bristol’s community led-housing land disposal policy.

This sets out an approach which prioritises small community-led housing schemes (10 homes or less) for priority access to council land. Larger community-led schemes require cabinet approval. The introduction of this policy has led to two phases of construction of homes by community groups, which can be viewed on the council website. These include eco-friendly, self-build housing, live/work spaces and mixed tenure developments. The Communities Creating Homes team is supporting around 60 community groups across Wales and would readily link Welsh local authorities to groups in their areas, if they wished to discuss how land could be usefully disposed of to groups that would be in a position to develop upon it.

Supplementary planning guidance which promotes community-led housing

Supplementary planning guidance offers a really useful tool to ensure that all involved in the planning process understand community-led housing and are minded to support it. A great example of this can be seen in the policies of East Cambridgeshire District Council, whose supplementary planning guidance states that: ‘The council starts with the presumption that all community led developments will be supported, unless there are fundamental problems with a proposal (for example, it would cause unacceptable highway safety problems).’ Support like this has resulted in the development of sites such as Stretham and Wilburton CLT, a community land trust which offers a mix of homes in affordable rent and shared ownership models designed to ensure that affordable housing is available in perpetuity for ‘for local people with strong connections to the village’.

Local authority champions

Fundamental to the implementation of a shift toward community-led approaches to housing is leadership. Leeds Council, has demonstrated exactly this, with impressive results. Using right-to-buy receipts to fund community-led housing, land disposal and asset transfer policies to free up sites, the council has helped a number of key sites to progress, such as Chapeltown Cohousing, a major co-housing site which is well underway and expecting to welcome residents this summer. Fundamentally, Leeds’s progress in community-led housing is down to leadership and the presence of champions at both elected member and officer level. This is combined with the presence of enabling organisations working within communities, such as the CLT, Leeds Community Homes, who support the delivery of ‘people powered homes’, to provide both bottom-up and strategically led progress toward the expansion of Leeds’s community-led housing stock.

While there are isolated, existing examples of such policy approaches in Wales (Swansea Council implemented a co-operative housing policy in response to the last Welsh Government housing target, for instance), May’s elections, conducted in the context of a very real housing crisis, offer the opportunity to bring community- led housing into the mainstream. We are already seeing the impact of the Programme for Government commitment in influencing the manifestos of prospective council groups: the Welsh Labour manifesto for Cardiff, for instance, includes a commitment to exploring community-led housing, and further such progressive commitments will be warmly welcomed by communities.

The Communities Creating Homes team, which consists of accredited community-led housing advisors, stand ready to support local authorities with the implementation of commitments to support community-led housing in their local area.

Hugh Russell is project manager of the Communities Creating Homes programme at the Wales Co-operative Centre

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