‘Local solutions are needed for local problems.’
In the latest of our exclusive articles compiled as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, Jennifer Line explores what community-led housing has to offer in response to the housing crisis.
At the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) we take turns in selecting our ‘quote of the week’. Here’s one of my favourites from Albert Einstein:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
In exploring alternative housing solutions, as with any form of innovation or creative thinking, it’s useful to reflect on Einstein’s sentiment. Within housing, as with so many things, we find ourselves trapped by silos, creating echo chambers that reinforce a feeling that housing is ‘too big to solve’. It’s a state of mind which is hard to break free from.
Why community-led housing?
At BSHF, our choice to work intensively on community-led housing as an important alternative housing solution was driven by a conviction that it is a good thing, and that we might be able to help. In our wider work we see examples from across the world of people taking housing into their own hands, approaching things differently, and achieving lasting positive change. Often the challenges facing international communities are arguably more severe than in the UK. There are communities in other countries with effectively no rights or support at all making their own situations better through community-led approaches, because if they don’t, no-one will. Across the world community-led housing arguably accounts for a majority of new housebuilding.
Are we in a culture that is so used to being distant from control over the big things that affect our lives (like housing) that we have effectively ruled ourselves incapable of making decisions? When community-led housing is discussed with housing professionals it’s not long before the word “niche” is mentioned often followed by the words ‘sandals’ and ‘muesli’. We have allowed community-led housing to be seen as a marginal form of tenure for an eccentric minority. But there is great potential for people to be empowered by community-led approaches. What if everyone who feels stuck could have some power over getting unstuck? Housing is not a niche issue or the exclusive domain of experts; it is a global issue that affects everyone.
One of the most startling phenomena of our time is the world’s rapid urbanisation. Nothing like it has happened ever happened before. Cities like Dhaka, Kinshasa and Lagos are forty times bigger than they were in the 1950s. Where do all the new people live? There is no Nigerian or Bangladeshi equivalent of Barratt Homes or Places for People. The new urban population in the developing world has largely housed itself. Not always well, and not always with the landowner’s permission. But upgrading and rebuilding programmes such as those of the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA), Slum Dwellers International (SDI), and REALL are helping to change that for the better and create housing coops, community land trusts and other forms of tenure that we recognise as community-led housing.
Are there lessons here for the UK? For the first time in a century, UK home ownership is falling. The population is rising. Policies designed to help, do not look likely to cope. The market does not look able to provide for everybody’s housing needs.
With a perspective across the world and across time, community-led housing looks less and less niche and more and more like the norm. It’s the UK’s developer-led housing model that begins to look like the exception.
What does community-led housing have to offer?
In the housing world it’s common to find discussions circling around the same barriers time and again:
We can’t solve anything without tackling the land market…
We can’t solve anything without addressing the inefficiencies in the planning system…
We can’t solve anything without significant policy changes…
We can’t solve anything without more investment…
That change is necessary and long overdue is pretty much accepted by the housing profession. But the unintended consequences of housing policy are prolific across our history. We can’t help but fear we’ll get it wrong. Again. We are paralysed by our own knowledge, stuck in the mindset of ‘can’t’.
The Community-led Housing Programme at BSHF has focused intensely on how, at the local level, people succeed in navigating barriers to housing delivery. This is happening within the existing system. Without changes in the land market, with the same planning processes, with a volatile and ever-imperfect policy environment, and with no ‘big money’. Often, also, without much prior knowledge or experience of housing at the outset – just a recognition of a problem and a desire to solve it.
There are great disadvantages to venturing into housing as a new entrant. It is a highly complex, risky, expensive and competitive business. Many community-led housing schemes flounder. In fact we don’t know how often this happens as this grass-roots activity is so grass-roots there’s no way of collecting comprehensive data on it. However, there is also a notable absence of the mindset of ‘can’t’. The genesis for community-led approaches to housing comes from a different place than usual – the people who will be affected by an intervention in housing, and who are being affected by a lack of intervention. This is a different motivator than shareholders or policy levers. It makes it worth pursuing creative solutions which deliver what is needed rather than bowing to the resistance of the system. This difference makes community-led housing an alternative housing solution that needs to be taken much more seriously.
What defines community-led housing?
Our journey of understanding has not been simple. Community-led housing is an umbrella term. It describes a vast spectrum of activities, containing a range of viewpoints and different practices. There are purist approaches and hybrids, and levels of engagement ranging from light-touch to total immersion. Appetites when it comes to community involvement in housing are as varied as housing markets. The one constant is that where there is some element of control and influence, communities get more from the process of housing than just bricks and mortar. We have spent time talking and listening to as many people as possible with an interest in or a view on community-led housing. This group is growing and changing all the time.
With new voices come new perspectives, and with an area as diverse as this there is always space for expanded understanding. Part of our work has been to attempt the distillation of community-led housing routes and principles to help these diverse actors identify as part of a single, far-reaching movement.
Broadly speaking (with a UK focus, although this may have international applications) there are 3 main routes to community-led housing delivery:
1. Group led: Grassroots groups responding to housing need or demand, or people seeking to deliver their own homes.
2. Extension of community based activity: Existing community based organisations with local roots decide to provide housing in addition to their current activities.
3. Developer-Community partnership: A local authority/landowner/housing association or small builder wants to provide housing that benefits the local area in perpetuity. They recruit ‘founder members’ from within the community and support them to take over ownership/stewardship and/or management of the homes. This could also include Neighbourhood Planning Groups deciding to commission housing in their area.
The legal form and activities of each community-led housing scheme depend on the outcomes needed, but community-led schemes share common principles:
1. The community is integrally involved throughout the process in key decisions like what is provided, where, and for whom. They don’t necessarily have to initiate the conversation, or build homes themselves.
2. There is a presumption that the community group will take a long term formal role in the ownership, stewardship or management of the homes. This works on a spectrum – communities may be happy with simply commissioning homes, or they may want to be involved in every aspect from conception to ensuring an ongoing legacy of influence for local people. The fundamental point is that it is the community that is informed and empowered to make these choices.
3. The benefits of the scheme to the local area and/or specified community group are clearly defined and legally protected in perpetuity.
Community-led housing exists where people perceive and act on market failure. In many places this is related to affordability, but not exclusively so. There are schemes where the impetus recognises a lack of options for older households (we have a generation with substantial equity and choice, many of whom aren’t happy with their housing choices). There are schemes which tackle empty properties and provide training, investment in local people, and affordable homes at the same time.
Can scale be achieved by 2025? What levers can be applied?
We see great potential for community-led approaches to housing. But the fact remains that the odds are not in their favour. Most people don’t know that these opportunities exist, or that they apply to them. Even when they do it’s hard to know where to start. The community-led housing market will prevail, but there are ways policymakers can help it to thrive.
Pay more attention to ‘the little guys’. The cumulative impact of lots of small sites in delivering homes can be substantial. Community-led and small providers have a different business model to ‘the big guys’. They want (and need) to build out quickly. More local authorities are starting to shift their focus this way with supportive approaches like packaging up and de-risking small sites or allocating some of the bigger sites to smaller providers.
Be more creative with releasing assets. There are ways to get social value and money back from releasing land and property without selling outright to the highest bidder. More local authorities are exploring leasehold schemes, deferred repayment and retaining stakes in development rather than succumbing to the typical ‘best value’ dilemma which so often ends in the permanent loss of public assets in exchange for a capital receipt for the most money possible.
Rebalance the scales. New providers have imagination and ambition, but no cash flow. Providing a little financial support initially, or removing some upfront costs can help them get further, faster, and places them on a more even footing with more established, bigger players.
Accept there are risks. If we believe diversification will help to tackle the housing crisis, we cannot continue to leave delivery only to those with the most substantial financial cushions, so they can take the hit when schemes lose money. This locks us into a housing market with a highly conservative approach to risk and return which isn’t delivering what we need. The question we need to ask is, if we don’t take the risks that come with change, what are the risks if nothing changes?
Provide support to reduce risk where possible. De-risking community-led housing and other forms of new supply is possible through technical support, underwriting, pre-packaging sites with planning permission and facilities like revolving loans, as well as effective knowledge transfer and selective standardisation of common practices and processes.
Keep it local. There is always a place for national interventions. But housing markets are not homogenous. Local solutions are needed for local problems. With community-led housing the customer is the starting point and not the end point. The approach changes the housing journey from ‘plan, present, defend’ to ‘recognise, understand, resolve’. Housing becomes a means to an end, as well as an end in itself.
In the end with enough support and the right levers in place, the potential for community-led housing is equivalent to the potential of unmet demand in the housing market. That should be enough to capture the imagination, which leads neatly to another favourite Einstein quote.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Jennifer Line is programme manager at the Building and Social Housing Foundation.
This article was written for the Webb Memorial Trust and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report and is part of a series of articles we will be running in the coming weeks.