Housing as if community mattered

Home K Policy and Campaigning K Housing as if community mattered

Tom Chance (our Chief Executive) writes about some reports and talks this week and what they mean for the CLT movement.

Image of a community tour of London CLT’s St Clements site.

What did the Archbishop of Canterbury mean when he wrote this in the foreword to his housing commission’s report?

“If the purpose of housing was understood as building homes and communities, not merely building accommodation with bricks and mortar, the whole nature of the industry would be changed.”

I keep returning to the last clause:

The whole nature of the industry would be changed.

What would that look like?

Maybe one answer came this week from another pillar of the British establishment – Andy Haldane, former Chief Economist at the Bank of England.

Delivering the Local Trust’s first ever Community Power Lecture, he argued that alongside the market and the state we need to pay more attention to a third crucial pillar of the economy – community. That some problems are best solved at the community level, and that communities should be on an equal fitting with businesses and government.

At the moment communities are treated as passive customers to be served (or more often failed); as consultees to be placated; as NIMBYs to get around.

Well, one way to change the whole nature of the housing industry would be to put communities in charge of building and stewarding homes and neighbourhoods. Or to put them into partnership with business and government.

Haldane points out that communities need the finance, power and capacity to do this. Anyone who has started a Community Land Trust would agree. To get there he says we need ‘stewards of the community commons and scaffolding for social capital’.

We are building these two components in the community land trust movement, with our friends in the wider community led housing and community business worlds.

Community Land Trusts are ‘stewards of community commons’. Forget housing for a moment, that is their core purpose written into the legal definition: to hold and steward land for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of their local community (and through a democratic membership structure).

Many CLTs also provide homes, workspace, shops and other amenities on their land. Others partner with and lease their land to others – for example to housing associations and co-operatives which provide the homes, or to farmers and conservationists who manage the landscape.

Enabler hubs are ‘scaffolding for social capital’. They help communities to build up their capacity and power, and to access land and finance.

A team of academics has been evaluating the five enabler hubs supported by Power to Change. In their year 2 report they show that the enabler hubs have supported communities to bring forward projects with more than 3,000 homes. But they have also started to knit communities into the local housing system – market and government. For example they’ve established supportive relationships with housing associations and developers, and secured political backing and policy improvements in local councils and combined authorities.

Our challenge, as the national body for CLTs, is how to take this mainstream. To not just inch forward building the commons as a niche, but to change the whole nature of the industry – and of government policy – so that communities become that third pillar in the system.

One trap Haldane highlights is going for a top-down big idea that gives no agency to local communities, no flexibility for them to define their own problems and solutions. This is what government has been doing with its Towns Fund and Levelling Up Fund and looks set to repeat with the Community Ownership Fund. Spectacular evidence for this familiar pattern of failure came from a finding of the Institute of Community Studies – that these sorts of policies have achieved a 0% change in the geographic distribution of poverty in our most deprived areas.

One of our answers for the national government was the Community Housing Fund.

It funded the scaffolding – the development and expansion of enabler hubs, which now cover 90% of England and Wales, and the training and accreditation of over 120 professional advisers which can work through enabler hubs to support communities.

It also funded the stewards – supporting communities to create new groups and projects, and to secure land and finance and planning permission. The pipeline mushroomed from 5,810 homes in 2017 to over 23,000 in 2020.

A similar answer came at the regional level from the Liverpool City Region’s Land Commission. Their final report, Our Land, maps out the stewards, scaffolding and community infrastructure already in place, and a fine grained set of policies to mainstream them. They include backing CLTs as stewards of land for the common good, and replicating the Breaking Ground enabler hub for purposes other than housing in a New Commons accelerator.

It frustrates me that these policies are still patchwork, with many parts of government and the market yet to grasp the meaning of Andy Haldane’s thinking, of Archbishop Welby’s words. The forthcoming Community Ownership Fund looks set to be centralised, top-down, and restricted in its purposes. The Community Housing Fund remains closed outside London. Almost half the councils in England have no policies or staff for community led housing, and no history of providing land or finance.

Our mission at the Community Land Trust Network is to change that.