Just jump – why now is the time to be ambitious for community-led housing

Tuesday 07 November 2017

A blog from our Director, Catherine Harrington.

The CLT idea was a gift from the United States. A few weeks ago, on a trip to Oakland, California for the annual Grounded Solutions community-led housing conference, I was reminded of yet another gift the Americans have given us – the gift of ‘can-doism’. As we stand on the verge of our own people-powered revolution going mainstream, I want to ask you: can we just do it too, jump into the unknown?

There’s something hugely infectious about that American positivity and belief that anything is possible. Ok, there are certainly other things we wouldn’t want to inherit from the States right now, but that sense of can-doism is something we need during what feels like a critical moment for the community-led housing movement in England and Wales.

The trip to the States was one full of anticipation - I had been told a couple of weeks beforehand that I would be presented at the conference with the Swann Matthei Award for an outstanding contribution to the Community Land Trust movement.

Already filled with nerves about the award and questioning if I actually deserved it (my view is that it is all the 225 CLTs who deserve the award – I’m merely a custodian), I was hit with severe jet-lag on reaching California. Anyone who has ever suffered from jet-lag will understand when I say that I negotiated the week leading up to the award in bit of a daze - a slightly geekier version of California’s psychedelic scene…

But the time in the States was also a rare opportunity to get a bit of space, reflect on how far the sector has come in the last few years and share our vision for where we need to go next.

I recall how, when I first got the job to set up the National CLT Network, it was like setting off for Everest in heels instead of hiking boots. And to top it off, no thermals, no water and no map. But there I was, 28 and fresh out of a job in Government, with no experience of running an organisation, let alone setting one up!

The expedition ahead was going to be a long one.

At the time there were only a handful of pioneer CLTs, led by extraordinary people like David Brown at High Bickington Community Property Trust, Helen Rawe at St Minver CLT and Bob Kenyan at Worth CPT, to name just a few, and inspired and spurred on by the ‘founding fathers’ like Bob Paterson, Pat Conaty and Stephen Hill. They were spending hundreds of hours battling away trying to get their schemes off the ground, clearing the path for others to follow suit, in what can only be described as quite a hostile environment for CLTs. They succeeded without much by way of support, but driven by that can-do attitude and sheer dogged determination. But that’s a story for another time…

Fast-forward 7 years and there are now 225 CLTs, 800 homes have been built but another 4500 in the pipeline. The regional and national support infrastructure is starting to grow across the country, we have secured some major lobbying wins and the sector is gaining real recognition.

We now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn community-led housing into something anyone, wherever they are, can do. We can grow the number of CLTs, cohousing, community self-build groups from hundreds to thousands.

To do that though we, and Government, have some important decisions to make.

Our new map for the sector

The £300m Community Housing Fund, which the National CLT network was instrumental in securing, is the biggest investment in the sector for the last 40 years.

We’ve been making the case for the Fund to create a market for community-led housing and leave a long-term legacy that will create tens of thousands of community homes long beyond the lifetime of the Fund.

Over the last 18 months we have led work with the UK Cohousing Network, and then more recently with the Confederation of Cooperative Housing, Self-help housing and Locality, to lobby Government and co-design the Fund. This work has led to a new map to help us all scale Everest together – a vision for the infrastructure in our sector that will create this self-sustaining market for community-led housing.

So here is our map:

  • A network of local enabling organisations – like our ‘umbrella’ organisations like Cornwall CLT and Wessex CLT Project – who provide that vital one to one support to groups, foster a supportive local policy and funding environment and broker delivery partnerships;
  • Revenue grants for CLH groups to pay for professional services to get your scheme through planning and on-site;
  • Capital grant funding to make your scheme viable, covering costs for affordable housing, land remediation and so on;
  • A one-stop-shop for community-led housing - a single platform with all information, guidance and resources on community-led housing, accompanied by a phone line, and a single database of groups and schemes so we can help ensure funders know how best to support and invest in the sector;
  • A training programme and quality mark for community-led housing advisers to ensure groups are receiving high quality advice and to equip more people with the skills and knowledge to support groups;

You’ve all helped us lobby the Government to make a decision on the Community Housing Fund and use it to invest in this map. More than 50 MPs and Peers lobbied the Government thanks to your amazing efforts.

The Minister for Housing and Planning, Alok Sharma MP, is now confirmed to open our National Community-led Housing Conference on 27th November. We’re hopeful for some news on the Fund and the Government’s commitment to the sector.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to say that Power to Change are already helping us kick-start this work.

But it’s not just about what Government and funders need to do. It’s also what we as national community-led housing bodies need to do. Enter can-do attitude!

We need to change

We know that we’re part of the problem. We’re all too aware that the complexity in the sector - the myriad of websites on CLTs, cohousing, cooperatives, self-help housing and so on, the multiple toolkits and guidance and different funding pots - is what makes doing a community-led housing project much more difficult than it should be to be. It’s natural that things have developed in that way – people have a great idea and want to get on with developing it without the prospect of being slowed down if they have to work with others.

But it’s gone too far and we now need to make a concerted effort to make the environment much simpler.

It is essential if we are to achieve the ambition to move community-led housing from being a ‘niche’ emerging market into a mainstream option to build homes and transform communities.

That’s something that we and the UK Cohousing Network having been working hard to do, starting off by sharing staff roles and then delivering more of our work together, including lobbying and holding the first National Community-led Housing Conference to be held on 27th of this month.

As Anna Kear, Executive Director of UK Cohousing, puts it, we realised we had more in common. 

We now want to go further. One way we are doing this is to work with UK Cohousing, CCH and Locality to start delivering the national elements of that map for the sector. We’re supporting new local enabling organisations, improving the data on your schemes, developing a training and quality mark scheme, and filling gaps in early stage funding.

At NCLTN we’re also developing a number of new business initiatives to help groups deliver. We’ll be launching a crowdfunding and community shares partnership at our conference. In the new year we’ll launch a mortgage brokering service for residents, accompanied by a new toolkit to help groups maximise lending on their homes. We’ve involved UK Cohousing in both projects, and where we have more in common we can deliver more together.

We hope that by joining forces in this way, others will want to join in too and, together, we can make it far easier to deliver a community-led housing project.

It really shouldn’t be as hard as it is, and this is our chance to change that.

Just jump

At the start I mentioned feeling like we were climbing Everest but were so ill-equipped. We now have a clearer map so can see what lies ahead and how to get there.

We can see the potential of community-led housing to deliver tens of thousands of homes.

We can see the potential for community-led housing, CLTs, cohousing, co-ops and self-help housing all to be household terms.

We can see the potential for the national bodies to work together and for it to be far easier to deliver community-led housing homes. 

We are ambitious for what this sector can be.

But we’ve suddenly come across a huge ravine and we have a choice to make: we can stay where we are, with what we know and are comfortable with, keeping community-led housing small and niche, working on our separate initiatives. Or we can take a big jump and see where we land.

And we want to jump. So we’re going to go for it and see what happens. And hopefully you’ll want to join us.

But we’re not going to do that without working with all our Members on what we want things to look like.

Not just the ‘map’ of the infrastructure that the sector needs, but what sort of sector we want to grow into, and what role our national networks should play.

We’ll be starting that conversation off at the National Community-Led Housing Conference on 27th November and will look to follow that with one to one sessions with you around the country. We look forward to hearing all your views and thoughts on where this sector should get to and hope you can join us at the conference. 

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