Community-led housing: a new era of cross-party support?

by Richard Goulding and Sophie King

We are undoubtedly witnessing “a moment” in the history-making of community-led housing in the UK. Where has it sprung from? Where is it going? What are the motivations behind new forms of political support on left and right, from the centre, and at the local level? What would meaningful political support actually look like in practice and how can it be secured?

These are some of the questions we will be engaging with at the next event in the GM Housing Futures series ‘Alternative Models of Ownership: risks and opportunities for the community-led housing movement’. In the meantime, here are some initial reflections based on our existing research. Our final report will be available in early December 2018 - don’t miss our regional support hub launch and future strategy day if you want to get involved in next steps!

A resurgent movement

Community-led housing (CLH) is undergoing a revival not seen since the 1970s. Civil society groups are increasingly exploring co-operatives and other forms of shared living as alternatives to exclusionary market provision, from grassroots eco villages to scalable vehicles for social housing provision. Community land trusts (CLTs), in which ownership of land is held in trust for use by a local community, are attracting growing urban attention as a means to shield affordable housing from speculative property markets. The increasingly global flow of ideas and methodologies for commnity-led change are fuelling the fire of innovative alternative thinking and action, at a time when the sharp social costs of austerity policies since 2010 are making housing access and affordability one of our most pressing societal challenges.

Large-scale investment in affordable housing for vulnerable and low income people is desperately needed. At the same time, we need to explore new ways of organising society that can carve out alternative approaches for overcoming the mistakes of the past. Mistakes such as the fragmentation of strong social networks through spatial displacement and the breaking up of collective identities of place and class into individualised recipients of underfunded welfare and services. The current moment points to a need to move beyond a market focus on supply and demand and ‘making the numbers add up’, and towards a discussion about what kind of supply we want, why, and how alternative models of ownership and provision might help to reduce the ever more acutely visible forms of inequality in our cities.

Existing support: the national picture

Ten years on from the 2008 financial crisis, there is a growing policy interest in community-led housing. Partnerships between community groups, local government, and housing associations have formed in many areas, and central government grants such as funding to bring empty homes back into use have been important in building links with policymakers. While empty homes funding ended in 2015, the government is in the process of rolling out a £300 million Community Housing Fund for the sector, running from 2016 to 2020 and enabling groups to bid to cover costs such as planning fees, professional services, and site infrastructure costs. Housing development is expensive and technically demanding. Community groups must necessarily compete for sites in opaque land markets with commercial developers who have better resources, market intelligence, and access to expertise. Recent years have seen the formation of a number of infrastructure support organisations: a National Community Land Trust Network in 2010 and the UK Cohousing Trust in 2013, joining the older Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) founded in 1993. The support provided includes signposting and advice, small grants, and a small network of regional support “hubs” is emerging, which we discuss further below.

While national policy agendas such as the Big Society have been framed using rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘localism’, there has been little coherent central government strategy in relation to community involvement in housing and spatial development beyond the introduction of a policy framework for neighbourhood development plans. While the past ten years have seen increased links between policymakers and CLH advocates in England, there has not been the same level of support for a national support infrastructure for the sector as seen in Scotland and Wales. National organisations such as the CCH, National CLT Network, and the UK Cohousing Trust have been a vital means of capacity-building, but remain underfunded.

From the opposition benches has come Labour’s Alternative Models of Ownership report which sets out a series of ideas and possibilities for alternative ways to organise work and society, however there is no targeted discussion of community-led housing. The party’s recent ‘Housing for the Many’ green paper includes a commitment to retaining the Community Housing Fund and recognises that ‘more could be done to raise public awareness and scale up delivery’, but little has been proposed by way of concrete proposals to date.

Local authority and city-regional strategies

In the absence of a national strategy, alliances with local government and housing associations have been an important source of support for CLH groups seeking to develop affordable housing, enabling them to identify land, access funding, and navigate planning requirements (see for example Moore, 2014). At a local authority and city-regional level there has been increasing recognition of the potential value of partnerships with CLH groups in recent years including the likelihood of reducing opposition to housing development and the turning round of infill sites that would otherwise remain unprofitable, bringing previously disinvested areas back in to use. An association of 22 local authorities named the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN) launched a commission into CLH which reported back in 2018 with a series of best practice recommendations, drawing on current examples in local government. These included making land available through planning policy, leasing suitable public sites, dedicated officer time, and the provision of small grants or loan funds through sources such as Right to Buy receipts or commuted section 106 contributions. Other strategies put in place by supportive local authorities such as Leeds and Bristol City Councils have included asset transfer policies at discounted value that enable organisations to grow their resource base. An organisation named Locality, an umbrella body for community development trusts that have historically supported asset transfer, has been important in developing this strategy at a national level. At the current juncture, when local authority financial resources are limited, these strategies could comprise a significant source of support for the sector and lay foundations for stronger and more productive relationships between citizen groups and local government.

Regional Support Hubs: a critical new mechanism for CLH development

The National CLT Network has been supporting the development of a patchwork of regional enabling “hubs” to support new CLH projects. Regional hub set up has been accelerating since the announcement of the Community Housing Fund in 2016 with new hubs established in Leeds, Bristol, Oxford and Birmingham. Operating at a county or city-regional scale, these provide signposting, technical expertise, networking and relationship broking with agencies such as local government and housing associations. Such hubs are emerging as an important source of support, though coverage is piecemeal and, as a relatively new institutional phenomena, the development of relations between hubs and localised individual groups has yet to be robustly explored through academic research. Our own Housing Futures research suggests that a strong regional hub would be a critical new mechanism for fostering an enabling environment for CLH in Greater Manchester.

A new Greater Manchester Community-Led Housing Support Hub

Inspired by CLH hubs established with the assistance of Power to Change in Leeds and Bristol, a consortium of stakeholders have now set out to establish a similar hub in Greater Manchester to support the creation, development and establishment of more Community Led Housing projects in the city region and beyond. Organisations actively involved in establishing a hub through a Cooperative Consortium model include Carbon Co-op, GMCVO, GM Housing Futures, Irwell Valley Homes, North West Housing Services and URBED. The hub will fulfil two roles. Firstly, to act as a voice for the sector locally, an advocate for community led housing organisations and a lobbyist to local and national government. Secondly, to deliver support and development services on a consultancy basis to new, emerging and established CLH projects. Greater Manchester Housing Action will play a key role in linking up the existing Housing Futures network with the Hub’s support services and we plan to launch the Hub as part of our final event on Saturday 8 December.

Negotiating the political opportunities? Keep community leadership in focus

Since the announcement of the Community Housing Fund there has been somewhat of a scramble among eligible organisations and agencies for new initiatives, partnerships and support infrastructure. What do community-based groups need to be aware of in seeking to negotiate this new political terrain amidst a number of well-resourced and politically ambiguous competitors? This is the central question we hope to address on 20 September. However, our research to date – including a look at historical and international experiences, highlights two particularly clear messages. Firstly, the need to be constantly alert to the dangers of elite capture and co-optation, while also accepting that some degree of compromise or trade-off is inevitable. Power holders do not generally seek to relinquish power - organised pressure from community action that is reinforced with technical/professional alliances makes a difference. Secondly, that state or professional bodies seeking to form partnerships with community-based groups can only expect to reap the purported benefits of community-led housing if they invest time and make a genuine commitment to ensuring that developments are indeed led by communities themselves.

Join us on 20 September, 1 November, and especially Saturday 8 December 2018 for more detailed insights and inspiration and to plan next steps.