Lessons to be learned from Hastings

There is some very painful news from Hastings, where the community benefit society running Hastings Pier was forced some months ago to go into Administration.  Funds raised through the high-profile community share issue were lost.

That’s bad enough, but what’s really upsetting is what has just happened now. The community dusted itself down, rallied round, used crowdfunding, and came up with a very strong rescue package for the pier.  New hope for a really good end result, you’d think.  Yet what has transpired is that the Administrator has disregarded the community’s rescue proposal and has made a deal to dispose of the business to an entirely commercial operator. Administrators can, of course, do this.

I would strongly encourage you to read the moving blog which Jess Steele from Hastings has just posted. What I think is particularly important is Jess’s comments about the need for a different process of Administration for community benefit societies.  As she says, “It is wrong to use a commercial administration process for a civic/community asset, applying private property sector ‘solutions’ to a civic problem that the community is capable and willing to solve for itself given half a chance.”

She goes on to propose a Community Administration Act, for use where a community asset is at stake.  Supportive backbench MPs are being sought to try to bring this forward.

Here’s her final thought: “The two Battles for Hastings Pier (2006-13 and 2017-18) stand in deadly stark contrast to each other. In one a very active community was eventually empowered by public funds to achieve the renovation of a derelict structure. In the other, the fully-restored asset was removed secretly from 5,000 shareholder-owners and then subjected to a commercial process that led, unfathomably, to where we are now.”

An errant diarist returns

What use, you may ask, is a blogger who never blogs?

Several months have passed since my last posting here, when I announced with a great deal of pleasure that funding had come through for the workers’ co-operative archive project which a few of us had for several years been nursing into health. I’m delighted to say that a project worker has now been appointed by the Co-operative Heritage Trust to start the hard work of making the initiative a success.

Since the Spring I’ve been busy, too busy or so it seemed at the time, to blog or tweet.  I’ve been finalising the text and undertaking proofing of a new book of mine Back Roads through Middle England which will be coming out next month from Gritstone Publishing Co-operative, the authors’ marketing co-operative of which I’m a proud founder member.

The book will probably be filed by bookshops as a ‘travel’ title, or perhaps in larger bookshops with other books in the growing genre of landscape writing.  It will, I hope, interest my friends in the co-operative movement (there are accounts of a village shop co-operative in Lincolnshire, a rural community land trust in Dorset, and a co-operative market garden outside Bath), although my aims with the book are rather more general.

Here’s how the press release which Gritstone has drawn up begins, to give you an idea.

At a time when Englishness and English identity is increasingly an uncertain affair, are there clues in both the past and the present state of the English countryside to help us understand the state we’re in?

Landscape writer Andrew Bibby delves deep into ‘middle England’ in his search for answers. In his forthcoming book Back Roads through Middle England he uses the device of a journey by bicycle from Dorset to the Humber along the Jurassic limestone belt (the so-called ‘cotswoldstone’) to try to capture the essence of this much-loved landscape – but also to explore the issues he feels are relevant to England today.

Maybe I’ll say more about the book here, in the run-up to publication next month.

Housing provision, the community-led way

Today has been put aside in my diary for some voluntary work (and some final tweaks to a grant application) on behalf of my local Community Land Trust, for which I occupy the post of secretary.

CLTs are part of a growing movement for what is called ‘community-led housing’, the idea being that bottom-up community efforts can bring much-needed housing to meet local needs which the commercial property market is failing to tackle.  Given that today also sees the government’s Housing White Paper published, it seems very appropriate as a focus for my blog.

I can also use the opportunity to get in a plug for a new booklet from the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, which provides a useful introduction to the subject (CCH prefer to talk of ‘cooperative and community-led housing).  You’ll find their report, New Co-operative and Community-led Homes, here.

CCH is one of a number of national organisations engaged in this field (Locality, the Cohousing Network and the National Network of CLTs are among the others). It has to be said that there is a slight element of overkill here in terms of national support networks.  At some point, a little appropriate amalgamation might be in order.

CAMRAH: the campaign for real affordable housing

Having (mis)appropriated the concept of the Living Wage the current UK government is doing something similar with another term which, you’d think, would mean what it says: affordable homes.

The government’s idea of what constitutes an affordable home is certainly not mine, and I wonder whether we need to coin a new term, one which celebrates the original idea behind the public provision of ‘council’ and ‘social’ housing for people in our communities who are on lower incomes.

I’m looking forward to being at the National Community Land Trust Network conference in London in a couple of weeks, along with I’m sure a whole host of people from CLTs and from the wider cooperative housing movement. Maybe we should launch a campaign for proper, sustainable, genuinely affordable housing for rent, led from the grassroots. Maybe we should stop talking of ‘affordable housing’ and start talking about community housing.

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.

The DIY community approach to getting the housing we need

I have a lunchtime meeting today, talking informally to other people who live locally about our neighbourhood’s Community Land Trust.

Because, yes, I do have a life away from my professional commitments and one of the things I’m engaged with at the moment in a voluntary capacity is our CLT, set up last year as a charitable community benefit society with a board of trustees elected by our fifty or so members. (Community Land Trusts are rapidly growing in the UK and all the details are on the national CLT website. They are “local organisations set up and run by ordinary people to develop and manage homes as well as other assets important to that community”).

Our own focus is both on the provision of affordable rented housing (basically, trying to fill the gaps in housing need which the commercial market is not meeting) and on holding land and property in perpetuity on behalf of our community. We have recently been gifted ownership of a local community centre, where we are working with another local charity which actually manages the centre. We are also looking at two or three housing projects, one focused on older people’s bungalows and one on a potential cohousing solution for local young people.

Community initiatives like this take time and patience. But it seems to be a necessary part of life today, if we are to have inclusive communities where everyone whatever their age or income can find somewhere to live.

Community and cooperative housing and the Right to Buy

The government’s proposed extension of tenants’ Right to Buy to housing associations (to be introduced in the forthcoming Housing Bill) could potentially have a very serious negative effect on the work of community land trusts. Depending on how the legislation is drafted, other types of cooperative housing might also be affected. My piece on this issue for Co-operative News has been published online today and will be in the print edition shortly.