Never mind custom build, where’s the support for community build?

Paul Hackett

Paul Hackett (2)Community-led housing groups, led by local volunteers, are springing-up all over the country and their presence is starting to get noticed.

Ministers now talk excitedly about a DIY housing revolution, with custom-build leading the way. Campaigners meanwhile claim that alternative housing schemes (community land trusts, co-housing, co-ops and self-help groups) are not only built to higher standards than conventional homes and are more eco-friendly, but, most importantly, are designed to be affordable to local people. In addition, the focus is not only on providing a home but on local job creation and regeneration.

At a time of doom and gloom in the housing world – with the government instigating the slow death of social housing and more and more people priced out of buying or renting – the news that innovative, low-cost community-led housing schemes are winning awards and attracting growing media interest must be welcome.

‘With the right backing community-led

housing could scale out, rather than scale up’

Could community-led housing transform the housing market and eventually compete with the mainstream volume housebuilders, offering an antidote to high house prices and nimbyism?

The Smith Institute’s in-depth report on the future of community-led housing, Local Housing, Community Living: Prospects for scaling up and scaling out community-led housing, argues that the sector has huge potential and is trailblazing in terms of sustainability and place-making, but that growth will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Community-led housing is enormously time-consuming (projects can take around 4-5 years) and demands a lot of patience and commitment. It’s also crucially about meeting local need and securing community benefit for the longer term, not ‘build and leave’ and short run profit maximisation. Those shared social ideals are what drive local groups, not the desire to meet housing targets or build second ‘designer’ homes. So, it’s no surprise that the Institute’s report illustrates how with the right backing the sector could scale out (create new groups where there’s local demand), rather than scale up (expand existing groups to provide lots more extra homes).

However, even to double the build rate of community-led housing in England (to around 1,000 homes a year) the sector will need a lot more than warm words. As our report highlights, government support has so far been half-hearted. The withdrawal last year, for example, of grant funding to self-help community groups which specialise in repairing empty properties was unhelpful. Similarly, the relentless budget squeeze on councils and housing associations has meant that these organisations have fewer resources to support small, local housing groups. There’s a big subsidy for starter homes and Right to Buy, but very little for alternative housing schemes.

Our new report documents the other barriers to growth, not least the general lack of public understanding and awareness of what community-led housing offers, the absence of professional help and advice, and often insufficient or hard-to-find seed corn funding. Planning was less of a problem than perhaps expected, although there is a case for more explicit guidance on the role of community-led housing groups in securing affordable housing and community services in a revised National Planning Policy Framework.

Despite the barriers, community-led housing groups are delivering for local people. The case for community-led housing is growing and there is now much more diversity and professionalism in the sector.

But, community build still needs as much help as it can get – not least in the early stages. Part of the reason why that help has not been forthcoming is that the focus on alternative housing development models is arguably too much on the individual ‘Grand Designs’ custom build market, which as our report shows is mostly for more expensive properties (half of all individual self-builders have annual incomes of over £50K). There’s nothing wrong per se with custom build, but should public policy favour it above community-build when so many places are short of affordable homes?

Given the current scale of the sector and the very local and voluntary nature of community build it is very unlikely to solve the housing crisis. But as our report concludes, ‘it’s not just about increasing new housing supply; for many in the sector it is critically about the promotion of community values, community living, respect for local preference and together creating something worthwhile and different’. For these reasons alone, surely it is time for both local and central government to revisit the case for supporting community-led housing.

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Paul Hackett

Paul Hackett

Paul Hackett is director of The Smith Institute

1 Comment

  • Lindy

    Mr. Hackett,

    Have you read ‘Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities’ by McCamant & Durrett? It’s a comprehensive look at the exact thing you are speaking of. I just read the report yesterday and I know that cohousing is catching on fire in the UK, as well as Canada, the US, and Australia. Great! It’s important that these communities are facilitated by qualified leaders – people who are looking at building from an aesthetic, environmentally sound, and social points of view – not just one but all of these components.

    Please have a look at the book. I’d like to get you in touch with Charles Durrett – he and Katie McCamant gave a bunch of presentations in the UK about 6 years ago, which agitated interest and now, to my understanding, there are over 70 cohousing communities in the U.K. They would be paramount in your ‘urge to bring co-housing to the mainstream.’

    Thank you and I look forward to speaking with you soon.



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