Community-led housing, and especially custom build is growing fast in the UK from a very low base. This is in comparison to a number of continental European countries where it can be an extremely common approach to new build housing.
In recent years, UK community-led housing has typically been on rural exception sites in high value areas, but increasingly it is appearing in urban areas.
In custom build, an individual household is the customer.
In group custom build the customers are a group of households who will be living in the same building.
In community-led custom build the customer is a community organisation which may or may not include the households that will live in the homes.
The community-led sector and the custom build sector are, to an extent separate silos but there is clearly much to learn from each other, not least in overcoming some of the financing challenges of group custom build.
More frequently though it is custom build like Leathermarket Community Benefit Society’s (another CLT) project in Bermondsey in London or the Older Women’s Cohousing (OWCH) project in Barnet in London.
There are now thousands of homes in the emerging community-led pipeline in England and Wales (including well over 5,000 in London).
There are nearly 350 known community groups across the country now looking to deliver new homes. And many of these groups are signing up on the Custom Build Registers.
The recent Government Housing White Paper recognised the need to diversify housing supply, and with the inspirational stories from the most recently developed community-led schemes, like OWCH, the sector’s growth looks assured.
Growth will be underpinned by the Government’s Community Housing Fund (£300 million over five years) and a national network of 11 Community Housing Hubs (starting this year in Leeds, London and Bristol).
Funded through the Lottery (Power to Change), Nationwide, Oak and Esmee Fairbairn Foundations and the Tudor Trust as well as public authorities like the Mayor of London, these hubs will expand the technical and financial support for new groups embarking on the community housing journey.
Community-led housing comes in a variety of flavours that all fit within a broad definition. Community consent is involved throughout the process in key decisions: what is provided, where, for whom and at what price.
The community group decides how they will own, steward or manage the homes and neighbourhood.
The benefits of the scheme to the local area and/or specified community group are clearly defined and legally protected in perpetuity. This definition includes community land trusts, cohousing and co-operative housing.
Community land trusts (CLTs) were legally defined in the 2008 Housing and Regeneration Act, as open, community, membership-controlled bodies that are established to further the social, economic and environmental interests of a local community (individuals who live or work, or want to live or work in the area). They do this by acquiring and managing land and other assets and using profits only to provide a benefit to the local community.
Cohousing communities are intentional, created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained home with the use of shared community spaces. Residents manage their community, share activities, and many regularly eat together.
Cohousing can counter the isolation many people experience today, sustaining informal neighbourly support systems that are particularly popular with older people, single people and LGBT groups. Projects can be inter-generational, age or interest specific.
Most co-operatives offer rental homes, in a strict ‘fully mutual’ legal form in which only tenants or prospective tenants can be ‘members’. They are owned and managed by the members, as tenants.
Tenants have control over their own housing, without owning it personally, enjoying the non-hierarchical organisation and culture of co-ops: making them very different from housing associations!
Except for co-ops, the different types of community-led housing are not themselves legal forms, with structures varying widely to include community benefit societies, companies limited by guarantee, community interest companies and charities.
These descriptions don’t do justice to the variety of approaches in the UK. Each development and community is different to fit its context, though there are standard funding and delivery models that are increasingly scalable and replicable.
Examples range from the urban to the rural. From a handful of homes to hundreds. From wealthy to low-income households, as well as mixed income. From young people only to elderly people only – and everything in between. From self-build to custom build. From bricks to straw bales.
In the UK the housebuilder approach hasn’t been successful at consistently delivering great homes, places and communities and the social and environmental benefits that community-led development can deliver and that are delivered in other countries particularly Denmark, Sweden and Germany.
The recently completed community-led projects seem to be having a snowball effect on communities’, policy makers’ and funders’ interest.
There are now a number of organisations that will support groups from their first idea through fund raising and development and increasingly funding sources are expanding.
Public authorities vary widely in their willingness to support these initiatives. Leeds, Lewisham, Bristol, Cornwall and Southwark have been examples of leadership in this area.
Other public authorities have a pre-conception that community-led development is slow and risky, with little understanding of the immense social outcomes, like mutual social care or affordability in perpetuity.
These projects also have a track record of promoting increased housing supply. In Haringey in London the St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (StART) is proposing, with wide community support despite previous local opposition, 800 homes on NHS surplus land (which currently has planning permission for just over 400 homes) subject to a package of community control and benefits.
There is clearly benefit for custom build and community-led housing in collaborating to influence policy and to deliver projects.
Together they could provide a potent alternative to the large housebuilder/housing association standardised approach to housing supply.