Rewiring the West of England

Research and opinion | 19 October 2021

Home K Research and opinion K Rewiring the West of England

In this blog, our Chief Executive Tom Chance reflects on an afternoon at the Bristol Housing Festival, co-hosted by CLH West, the enabler hub for the West of England region.

Bristol has long been a hot bed of community led housing activity. It boasts over 1,000 homes in the works, from teeny Tiny House schemes on garages to the splendid Southmead Development Trust’s 120 home regeneration project.

Students are taking over a hall of residence as a co-operative. Council tenants are building their first two flat-pack homes in outsized back gardens so their children (with grandchildren) can get a home of their own; first time buyers are being trained up to do the fixtures and fittings in their half-finished homes. (Apologies for the airbrushed pen portraits!)

It’s all very exciting, and projects have moved forward since I last visited the city two years ago.

But in that time almost 3,000 other homes were built across the city. Is the community led sector really all that relevant?

The trouble is that those 3,000 homes are ‘units’, accommodation seen just as bricks and mortar, with no role for the people who move into them or the communities around them.

Because those in the greatest housing need are also in the greatest need for power, agency, control. Given a slice of this they campaign for, and build, more affordable homes than would otherwise be the case. Given ownership and the capacity for self-determination, they develop more wealth, better health and more cohesive communities. A city wracked by gentrification is learning the hard way that if you don’t own the land, you don’t have the power.

Community led housing isn’t relevant just because it can add a few more to the supply, but because it could change the whole nature of the industry for the better.

 

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.

Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury

Ok, your grace, we’ll change the whole industry.

How?

Here are three sketches of answers that I picked up today.

The ‘bootstraps’ method – help communities pull themselves up by their bootstraps by raising awareness more widely, and then providing more training, more funding and support to help them succeed.

The ‘homestead’ method – persuade politicians to carve out opportunities for new pioneers, like Bristol City Council’s land disposal policy.

The ‘rewiring’ method – solder community agency and ownership into the wiring of existing delivery models, so build-to-rent flats are managed as co-operatives and affordable homes are co-designed with and stewarded by CLTs.

To the purist the second ties you into government rules and regulations, and the third is a capitulation to the very system you’re trying to buck. For pioneers, the fun and the passion often lies in the uniqueness of grassroots groups.

But so long as bootstrapping grassroots groups is the primary strategy, the sector will stay small.

It is a hard road to travel, constantly pleading for extra support from cash-strapped councils, making the best of the worst sites.

We will always do what we can to support communities to take this road. Our Start Up Fund helped over 200 new CLTs get going; our Urban CLT Project proved the model can work in cities; our Cohesive Communities Fund helped 16 CLTs become more diverse and inclusive; together they put more than £1.5 million into community support. Our lobbying for the Community Housing Fund has helped communities secure tens of millions in revenue and capital grants. And so on, and so forth.

But it remains a tough road that few can travel. Too many of those most in need of affordable housing, most in need of power, are left behind, benefiting only as end users where affordable homes are built. While CLTs are overrepresented in the most deprived parts of our country, only a tiny minority of those excluded from the market by their poverty, race or age are actively involved in running them.

One of my great inspirations is the ‘Wessex’ or ‘Middlemarch’ model of CLT-housing association partnerships, which has seen more CLT homes built in Dorset, Somerset and Devon than most of the rest of England. The real lesson from this is, I think, widely misunderstood. Forget the details of the lease arrangement and so on. What Steve, Alison & co did was to run an action research project to establish: what did communities trying and struggling to ‘do’ CLTs actually want to achieve? What ‘rewiring’ model could achieve 80% of this, with a greater chance of success? How can we develop a role to facilitate this that has value for the party in the process with the money, so it becomes a self-sustaining enterprise?

Cornwall CLT, just over the Tamar, found a different answer to similar questions. The housing co-operatives in London and Liverpool were different again. But wherever you find a lot of community led housing in one place, the questions were the same.

To these I would add: how can we ensure this approach involves, and gives power to, those most in need?

These are the questions that CLH West is seeking to answer for the West of England, and that we are trying to answer for the whole of England and Wales. They are the questions our lobbying is directed at, much more so than trying to claw special favours for a niche sector.

How can we change the while nature of the industry – policy and practice – so that the common ownership of affordable housing and land becomes commonplace?