Towards a new kind of municipalism

Home K Research and opinion K Towards a new kind of municipalism

Guest blog from Charli Bristow, Research and Projects Manager at Future of London.

In the 1970s, in a climate not dissimilar from our own, of mounting concern around fiscal pressure and inefficiencies observable in the status quo, Elinor Ostrum coined the term co-production. She used it to explain why crime rates rose when the police switched from walking the beat to patrolling in cars.

The idea was that by walking the beat and interacting with communities, police were able to draw on local knowledge to anticipate and prevent crime. In that way, the reduction of crime was co-produced between the community and police, the relationship symbiotic and mutually beneficial. When the relationship lapsed, crime rose.

This idea, that services are more effective when the “consumer” is involved in their production, has since transformed thinking about the design and delivery of public services, particularly health and social care. The premise taps into bigger ideas, about what it could mean for citizens and state to share power and work in new ways across the urban realm: the idea of a new municipalism.

This was the topic of the SHICC conference’s closing plenary, which I had the privilege of chairing. As democracies all across Europe face unprecedented turbulence, and with housing a core challenge for all, we’re realising the benefits of bringing citizens into the development process, and of empowering and enabling people to lead it.

We’re starting to co-produce solutions to the housing challenges that face us all. While these efforts alone won’t solve the housing crisis, they’re an important part of the mix. When residents have a say in the development and management of their homes, all kinds of amazing things can happen.

Older Women’s Cohousing in Barnet has won multiple awards, with the Housing Design Awards judges praising the way the scheme “conformed to [the residents’] personal needs and lifestyles rather than that of a volume house builder”.

Infill development on LB Southwark’s Kipling Estate would not have been possible without resident support. But, with the locally trusted Leathermarket JMB (a tenant management organisation) acting as development partner, and with an engagement process that gave residents real decision-making power, 27 new homes on a former garage site are now complete and occupied at council rent.

Drawing on the community’s skills, resources and know-how at Knowle West in Bristol, We Can Make has developed a prototype home, designed for the estate’s 5000 vacant micro-sites. To date, 80 families have opted-in for resident-led densification, a substantial step towards alleviating pervasive issues such as over-crowding.

In London, with budgets still shrinking and land values still rising, and with demand for affordable housing far outstripping supply, there is real public-sector appetite for these new ways of working. It’s a topic Future of London has been exploring through the Foundations for Community-Led Housing programme.

Future of London is the capital’s independent network for regeneration, housing, infrastructure and economic development practitioners, with 4,000+ professionals using FoL as a hub for sector intelligence, connection and professional development. Our membership includes 28 of the London boroughs, TfL, GLA, 15 housing associations, SME members and private-sector partners.

In January 2019, with community-led housing surging up the capital’s political agenda, we embarked on a major programme of action learning, bringing our membership together with community-led groups, to foster relationships and support the delivery of community-led homes.

From the project’s inception, the message from our membership was clear: recognition of the social value of community-led housing is growing, and in the context of the crisis, its ability to deliver additional homes, on sites that the public and private sector alone could not make viable, is vital. The question is not so much why to do it, but how.

Our work to date has covered the thorny challenges of access to land, the future of finance, planning for community-led housing and the alignment between CLH and the council’s strategic goals. We’ve explored the potential of refurbishment, of CLH on small sites and as a component of larger schemes.

Across the diversity of forms, scales and ambitions of community-led housing projects, co-production is critical to their realisation. At an initial workshop bringing 80+ cross-sector delegates together, participants from groups, authorities and private companies were clear that for these new relationships to work, trust, transparency, consistency and realism are key on all sides.

Co-production is a spectrum rather than an absolute. This is a strength in that there is likely a model to suit everyone, from meaningful resident engagement through to self-build projects.

In a pioneering effort, the Mayor of Newham has committed to co-producing the first phase of Custom House’s regeneration with residents. Speaking at our workshop, Sib Trigg of People’s Alliance for Customer House observed:

“Co-design methods are relatively well known within design circles. There are people who are experts at that and can facilitate it – the question we’ve been asking ourselves is what does co-production look like in delivery?”

It’s a big question, but an exciting one. This is co-production at the neighbourhood scale, and a way of working which is almost entirely new, with lessons undoubtedly to be learnt at every stage. We hear frequently that regeneration has become a “dirty word”. This approach, ensuring residents have a meaningful voice through well thought-out structures, has the potential to change the narrative.

This wholesale approach won’t be for everyone, and in many cases small is beautiful. But Custom House is a clear example of what community-led housing projects are: little pieces of the new municipalism, emerging from the complexity of London.