Cooperative housing past and present

Something of a follow-up to my last blog about Community Land Trusts.

Britain, unlike other countries, has a relatively small cooperative housing sector, although there are signs that this may be changing. It’s good to see, for example, the growing interest in cohousing solutions (communities run by residents who have their own private homes but also share facilities and resources held collectively). I have recently been able to visit two very inspiring cohousing projects, LILAC in Leeds and Lancaster Cohousing, beside the river Lune in Lancashire.

It’s encouraging, too, that students in a number of cities are starting to explore the idea of student-run housing cooperatives. The Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative is a good example.

There is in fact a long, and forgotten, story of cooperative housing in Britain which I began to uncover when I was researching my recent book on early productive cooperatives. (There were cross-overs between the cooperative I was particularly researching and the so-called ‘tenant cooperative’ movement as well as the early Garden City movement).

Nineteenth century cooperative societies engaged quite actively in house-building (partly because many were acting as informal local savings banks for their members and had more capital than they knew what to do with). The tell-tale signs of their activity are still there: streets (particularly in northern England) with names such as ‘Co-operative’ or ‘Unity’, or named after early cooperative pioneers such as (George Jacob) Holyoake, (Edward Vansittart) Neale or (JTW) Mitchell.

By 1907, when at the request of the Co-operative Union around 400 societies reported on their housing initiatives, they had between them lent £6.5m in mortgage loans to members with which 32,600 houses had been bought, had themselves directly spent £1.2m on building over 5,500 houses which were then sold, and had also spent approaching two million pounds on building 8,530 houses which they were renting out.

But as well as all this activity, there were also the ‘tenant cooperatives’ or co-partnerships, in places such as Letchworth, Ealing, Sevenoaks, Bournville and Manchester. Arguably the tenant cooperatives were the direct antecedents of today’s housing coops and their story deserves to be known. The best account I have come across is the paper from Johnston Birchall, Co-partnership housing and the garden city movement, published in the journal Planning Perspectives in 1995. It is available (unfortunately at some expense from the journal publisher online) or for those with access can be obtained through university libraries. I’d like to see it much better known.

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One thought on “Cooperative housing past and present

  1. Andrew, I agree that the history of housing co-operatives and the role they played in the Garden City movement should be better known. I am now a Labour and Co-operative councillor in the London Borough of Ealing. Part of Brentham Garden suburb build by Ealing Tenants’ Copartnership is in my Cleveland Ward. It includes a road called Holyoake Walk. Thank you also for your positive appreciation of the new Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles, which I edited for the ICA.

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