On 16 March 2016, the day that George Osbourne made a budget announcement of £60 million pounds for community-led housing, we brought together community activists, designers, funders, academics, local authorities, housing associations, developers and policy advisors to explore the current landscape for community led housing in high demand urban areas.
Here are some of the key themes that emerged throughout the day’s discussion and activities.
Why community led housing?
Housing is not just a matter of providing a building in which to live. Housing touches on all aspects of life, our social and economic wellbeing, our family and social networks. The quality and qualities of where we live has a profound impact on us as individuals and as communities.
In this country, the production of new homes is dominated by private developers and volume house builders. However, there is a growing movement of communities leading a different approach to housing development. Housing cooperatives, community land trusts, custom build and self build all sit within a wide spectrum of locally-driven models and approaches to developing new homes that address local needs and aspirations.
Many of our workshop participants stressed that community-led housing does not start with a site, but with a local conversation and the recognition that new housing and development are needed in the area. Community-led housing is not about the speculative commercialisation of a parcel of land. It seeks to weave new housing provision into the local context in order to increase local opportunities and connections, to think more holistically about place and our connection with it. It is driven by its local social and economic context and delivered by the people who want to inhabit it.
Access to land
That said, community-led housing cannot happen without access to land, which is particularly challenging in high demand urban areas such as London and the southeast. Land values are high and there is fierce competition for sites when they become available. At the same time, there is growing demand for homes and dissatisfaction with the housing market offer in high demand urban areas, and many feel that the community-led approach could help diversify the housing market and enrich the offer.
The recent Self-Build and Custom Housebuilding Act (2015) has made some ground towards addressing this. It requires every local authority to keep a register of individuals or groups who would like to undertake a self-build or custom build project and to make provision for those interests in developing local housing and plans. This is undoubtedly a useful bit of legislation and an opportunity that those interested in delivering community-led housing should seize.
However, access and ownership of land is not just a legal issue. Where do power, democracy and fairness stand in the decision-making processes around who should take ownership of public land, and at what cost? When there are competing interests and divergent views about the best models and governance structures for housing development, is it ever simply not fair to hand over public land to one group over another?
Show me the money
In a housing market dominated by financial values, do we need to give greater weight to the social and economic impact of any new development? And how can the financial policies, lending and grants better support community-led development to become a credible and viable alternative to the current market-driven approaches? What does the fact that the Chancellor’s support for community-led housing focuses on rural and coastal areas mean for progressing new models in high demand urban areas?
Has the commoditization of homes made us forget that a home above all, is a place to live, work, play and thrive? Are we allowing the supply side to dictate the rules?
If this country is to make a cultural shift towards a more diverse approach to housing provision and development, it will take not only more flexibility in policy, financial models and land allocation, but also a greater public awareness that there are alternative approaches to those we have come to accept as a given. It will also rely on people taking up their rights and powers, and demanding new ones, in order to proactively contribute to that change.
Do we need a more coherent and unified voice for the demand side of housing?
This unified voice remains one of the greatest challenges for the community-led housing movement. While it is growing and gaining momentum, there are divergent views around the value of defining clear models and the replicability of bottom-up, organic processes led by local people, each working within their own local context. Community-led housing is, in many ways, the antithesis of formulaic models.
However, it is clear that there is a great deal that we can learn from the many groups around the country both succeeding and failing to deliver community-led housing. We must share stories and learn from them. And we must, in the spirit of organic and bottom-up development, consider how best to influence and use policies and targets, but not to be limited by them. We must convince investors, be they government, financial institutions or local people, that the numbers can stack up, and with them the social, economic and environmental value in the long term.
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This event builds on a long-standing relationship with LCNC, who have been involved in training, events and action research led by The Glass-House, as well as receiving hands-on support to explore their housing co-operative project.
A short film on our exploration of community-led housing will be released in mid April, along with further knowledge resources.
Our knowledge exchange initiative is part of a wider programme to support the growth of affordable, community-led housing projects through greater understanding of the opportunities and a wider awareness of methods, resources and support. Coordinated by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), it is funded by the Nationwide Foundation.