At last! Cohousing initiative has the success it deserves

Enormously good news today from the Older Women’s Cohousing Group, which for years and years (and still yet more years) has been battling away to try to turn their vision of a self-managing housing community into reality. It has been a truly epic initiative, and – against what seemed so often to be heavily stacked odds – the story ends this week in success, as 26 women in the group, aged 50-87, take possession of a block of twenty-five newly built flats in Union Street, High Barnet, north London.

Cohousing is a growing movement, and one which I think has great potential for the baby-boomer generation as it tries to find housing solutions in older age which don’t involve the commercial imperatives of companies such as McCarthy and Stone. The Barnet cohousing community (based, it says here, on “shared values of neighbourliness and mutual support”) includes a mix of home-owners and social renters.  They add that they “want to act as a demonstration project to encourage other older people to plan their later lives and develop similar initiatives”.

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.