Scaling Up – Community led housing

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There appears to be little to argue about when it comes to community-led housing. It’s a good idea, it puts local communities front and centre of the housing debate, helps to deliver what local people want and provides some great opportunities for us to de-commodify housing. There are some brilliant examples from across the country and elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavia. Yet somehow this approach to housing is still seen as small scale, pilot schemes and show schemes. It’s not considered as a key part of the mainstream delivery of housing in England. Most schemes have so far been small scale demonstrators of what is possible. Many of them use different approaches to building houses, with off-site manufacture, design and build schemes more prevalent than the bricks and mortar approach of the volume house builders. They could all be scaled up to help solve the housing crisis but we don’t appear to be geared up to embracing new models of delivery. The barriers are always there when it comes to doing something different.

We have some excellent examples and ideas being developed in Bristol, as I found out at a recent Festival of the Future City event where Melissa Mean talked about the concept of “we can make” which has been developed by the Knowle West Media Centre in collaboration with White Design. They have developed a housing modular unit that can be used to infill on large garden plots and micro sites across the Knowle West estate. This is an area I know quite well as I was the local councillor for Knowle for 7 years. A large part of the estate is made up of 3-bed semi-detached houses built around Garden City principles at very low density, with plenty of open space, large gardens and roads with wide grass verges. A large proportion of the estate is still in council ownership. There are significant opportunities to densify the estate, working with the local community to identify need and provide solutions that work. That’s what ‘we can make‘ is all about, it’s about putting people and communities at the heart of housing to develop the micro sites that exist but with the community as the developer and meeting local housing requirements at the point of need. In Bristol there are many other similar estates to Knowle West, so the potential across the city is immense. The particular housing unit designed so far, and on show locally, is a straw bale construction, that is flexible and adaptable to changing needs, that could be made in a factory locally, using local labour.

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This is just one example of what is possible if you look beyond the mainstream to provide the local housing required to reflect local community need.  The Bristol Community Land Trust is another organisation working with local people who need an alternative route onto the housing ladder. They have completed one scheme in Fishponds and are about to start a co-housing scheme in Lockleaze. Both schemes provide an opportunity for local people to access housing in a different way, through self-finish and cooperative housing, with shared space and shared living. But still these schemes are small scale and seen as outside of the norm.

There are other offers on the table too, using alternative construction methods to provide cheaper more affordable homes, that meet the highest of environmental standards. One example is the recently developed Snug Homes brought to you by Ecomotive, an organisation dedicated to promoting self-build as part of the solution to the housing crisis. There’s also the potential offered by Apple Green Homes, a fast build, affordable, sustainable wooden framed home, partially built in a factory. But all too often these innovative, affordable homes have difficulty competing with the larger volume house builders. They get squeezed out of the market and find it difficult to secure the land to provide much needed affordable homes. Council’s themselves are often the main stumbling block, with local bureaucracy never at ease with doing something different. The barriers are all too often insurmountable, even if the will is there, the ability to find a way through the red tape just takes too long, to the point that even the most committed social entrepreneur may well give up.

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What can council’s do to make things happen and make it easier for those with the solutions? It’s actually quite simple in concept but difficult in practice. All that is required is a change of attitude. Instead of constantly responding with “no that’s not possible” or “we’ve never done that before, so don’t know if we can”, we need politicians to respond positively with “ok, we’ll find a way“. That’s it! I remember only too well the conversations I used to have as a councillor with the legal team at the City Council, all too often their response was ‘sorry councillor we can’t do that’. My response was always the same – “yes we can I just need you to work out how!”

The other important thing to remember is that the council cannot solve this problem alone. Even with its plan to set up a housing company and build more council houses itself, more is still needed. Working in partnership and collaboration is a key theme of the current Mayor’s approach, and there’s no where we need it more than in ensuring the delivery of affordable housing.

If the commitment and desire is there, then it can be done. Bristol has some great examples already, as well as some brilliant social entrepreneurs willing to put time and effort into a new generation of community led housing. It’s about time the Council played a more positive enabling role to help make it happen. Otherwise we may find the people with ideas and creativity give up and/or go elsewhere and Bristol once more falls behind as a result of the ‘deadhead of the council’.

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Pioneering alternative housing models

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When we talk about solving the housing crisis we tend to talk about supply and demand, about affordability and about providing homes for people. We seldom talk about people being in control of providing their own home. The whole housing system has morphed into one of dependency, be it dependence on private landlords, house builders or the State, someone will provide it for us. When housing professionals get together they talk about mainstream housing issues, about rent prices, about how difficult it is to build council housing or social housing for rent, about problems of land supply and land-banking by private developers. Rarely do they talk about self-build, custom build or housing co-operatives. It seems, on the surface at least, that we’ve lost some of the creativity and innovation in our debates about housing.

When you dig beneath that surface though you will find all kinds of interesting projects, that take us back to a less dependent realm of provision, where self-help and mutual aid were the guiding principles for action. This type of approach can still be seen in self-build and custom build projects, co-operative housing schemes and community led housing developments. These are schemes that are shaped and controlled by residents, where people have taken back control.

Back in 1975, over 40 years ago, the then Director of Housing at Bristol City Council published a Green Paper on housing with the following title:

“A Decent Home!! (A paper to stimulate thought and encourage participation so that policies can be evolved to tackle effectively the Housing problems of this great city.)”

What a great idea. Perhaps it’s time to have that very debate again in Bristol and to encourage participation from neighbourhoods across our city with a discussion that includes some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work. Maybe it could be a debate that involves those seeking a decent home but who can’t afford what is on offer and who have given up on a social housing system that has been reduced to such a residual service. Maybe it’s also time to listen to those who have solutions but are marginalised, as their solutions don’t support the traditional mainstream approach to housing?

There are many small-scale examples to draw from that could be included in this debate but seldom are. Why don’t we talk about co-operative housing more frequently when we have such a great example here in Bristol that is currently on site and well on its way to developing a sustainable model for converting empty office buildings into homes. Proof if ever you needed it that, even now, ordinary people can refurbish old buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors (AEOB Group).

Why don’t we talk more about ‘kit housing’ or custom build, which is factory made, using more sustainable materials, cheaper and quicker to erect on site than traditional bricks and mortar housing? There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes and the local SNUG homes developed by Ecomotive. Whilst self-build might not be an option for many, custom build and co-operative housing may just be relevant to a wider audience. Together these models of provision could provide greater opportunities to those that have been failed by our current approach to housing.

Imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop these custom build, co-operative models further, as part of the mainstream, using public land, property and resources to support individuals and communities to make things happen? Imagine if we could just find a way to support people to develop their own plans and models of future living? There’s a challenge here for Bristol to make this happen. And there’s a challenge to all of us to support these different initiatives to help effect the change that is needed. As Colin Ward put it so well:

”… if people are given the reins, get the right help and are committed, they can come up with a really excellent viable housing scheme that people want to live in”.

(Colin Ward, 1985:120, “When we build again, let’s have housing that works”)

The text of this blogpost was first written for The Bristol Cable and appeared there in April 2016.