Community Led Housing Festival: A Closer Look
21st April 2021
Celebrating the breadth of motivations and opportunities for Community Led Housing (CLH) in the area, we have completed a series of six inspiring and helpful events with over 60 individuals, groups and partners attending our inaugural CLH Festival for Cumbria and Lancaster. Huge thanks go to all our speakers and helpers. The conversations have challenged the way we think about housing and the passion of the speakers has charged us all with new enthusiasm.
Community Led Housing with Older People
Paul Mullis from the Almshouse Association and Durham Aged Mineworkers Housing Association gave us an insight into the continued development of Almshouses - an historical model with very obvious modern application. The Almshouse Association provides great support for new Almshouse charities, and with hundreds of years of experience, they can draw on model documents and established partnerships to really assist new groups to find their way.
We also heard from Chris Coates who is project managing the proposed build of 20 units in Halton, Lancaster which are described as ‘senior cohousing’. This development, which secured planning permission in December 2020, will house a group of residents, over the age of fifty, who choose to share some of their facilities and resources to significantly reduce their environmental impact, whilst maximising the social benefits of excellent design, shared space and shared endeavour. Cohousing is increasingly popular with older people, offering a wonderful combination of social support and well-designed space, meeting the needs of residents now and into the foreseeable future.
Some very useful information was also shared with the group from the Housing Our Aging Population Panel for Innovation - with thanks to Jeremy Porteus. We had a great discussion about the potential growth of this sector in the Community Led Movement, and recognise that mixed age populations have a great deal to offer when they function well as communities. There is real interest in addressing the needs of our aging population and rising to the associated challenges, including the need to engage residents, not as a target audience, but as people with a real stake in where they live and the local services they value.
Building Communities that work, not just houses
Kate Skillicorn from Eden District Council showed how Community Led Housing contributes very clearly to the corporate strategy of the Council, encouraging groups to find a way of having this conversation with their local authority. The benefits of this approach for wellbeing and for tackling climate change are two key concerns of Eden District Council. They have had the confidence to include Community Led development in their planning policy, which is a tremendous opportunity, and shows a real desire for creativity in response to social and environmental challenges.
Our own Lorrainne Smyth helped explore the ingredients of resilient rural communities, using the framework of work recently published by the Rural Coalition. This provided some real food for thought and showed that houses are very much a part of the solution for sustainable communities, but on their own they solve very little. We cannot work to address the ‘housing crisis’ without recognising the complexity of what residents need. Some of this is met with existing planning policy, but much of it is lost as projects confront the difficulties of access to services in rural areas – healthcare; work and educational opportunities; and public transport, for instance.
The session rounded on the idea that building the houses on its own is not enough; consideration should be given at every stage to addressing the wider social, economic and environmental considerations of residents within a new development, or a redevelopment opportunity.
Community Led approaches to Empty Homes and Refurbishment
The re-use of existing buildings is an important part of our housing conversations. Whilst recognising that many existing houses do not reach decent homes standards, there are inevitably going to be savings in terms of resources – and therefore carbon footprint – when a building is brought back into use, instead of being demolished and replaced with new build.
Passivhaus consultant Diane Hubbard shared her take on the reuse of the fabric of old buildings to meet our future housing needs. Diane looks at how a building functions and solves problems usually associated with damp and condensation. She is currently looking at bringing a number of empty homes back into use and up to Passivhaus standard (high airtightness - to reduce the need for additional heating, often to zero). With this level of intervention, empty homes can be not only rescued from dereliction and the associated problems, but can be genuinely affordable to maintain, so people on low incomes can live in comfortable homes and not worry about high heating bills.
Back on the Map is an ambitious project in Hendon, Sunderland. Chief Executive Jen McKevitt kindly shared her experience and motivations with us to show how refurbishing damaged homes can have huge social impact. Buying properties which have fallen into disrepair was initially made possible through New Deal for Communities money in this deprived area. However, the project saw that the proliferation of poorly managed private rental properties in the neighbourhood was a big concern, with high rates of vandalism, fly-tipping, anti-social behaviour and even arson. Back on the Map grew their ambition and created a model for buying more properties and working closely with tenants to rebuild stability. Their vision is to create a better place through a stronger, more engaged community.
In discussion, the Festival attendees agreed that taking the opportunity to reuse existing property, though not without its challenges, is to be encouraged. There is a shortage of skilled tradespeople to carry out some of the work and opportunities for business development and for training courses to be run locally for the benefit of our communities. We also touched on recent government consultation which may make it necessary for private landlords to achieve an energy rating of C (as opposed to E currently) and the pros and cons of this with regard to some of our more challenging and older buildings. It is vital that domestic energy use is driven down and this is a good step towards national carbon reduction targets; however for landlords who work mainly with reclaiming poor or old housing stock this could be very costly and push them out of the market.
Community Led Housing Tackling Affordability
Bill Bewley from the pioneering Keswick Community Housing Trust (KCHT) recounted the journey of the Trust and the four developments they have now been involved with. Their extraordinary achievements in providing over 50 affordable homes for local people in Keswick (where wage to house price index is considerably above the national average) have been a mixture of perseverance and opportunism. Adapting to the situation they find themselves in whilst remaining clear about the result they want has lined the group up for their next development and the one after that. An amazing story of success breeding success.
Bill talked about the need to work with professionals and advisers who can help in order to avoid making expensive mistakes, or burning out committee members. We also heard about the importance of seeking out local opportunities and conversations with the Local Authority and the Church as two major landowners. We got into a discussion about whether local CLH groups should be become Registered Providers (RPs) of social housing, in order to access funding from Homes England directly. Currently only RPs can access funding for capital funding for affordable rent properties. Bill makes a very good case for just biting the bullet and getting registered – particularly if you aim to deliver more than one scheme. KCHT has a good relationship with Homes England with one part time member of staff dealing with the monitoring and reportage requirements, as well as managing the housing through changing tenants and maintenance issues.
Business Planning and Financial Options for CLH
Mark Ogden from Triodos UK and Anne-Helene Sinha from CAF Venturesome (part of Charities Aid Foundation) gave us a great insight into what they need to see from a CLH project in order to work with them successfully. Both lenders have a great track record of supporting community led projects over many years. It was great to be reminded that these investors are motivated by the social and environmental impact of your project, but that they also need to be confident that your financial projections are robust and realistic.
Accredited Community Led Homes Adviser Andy Lloyd was on hand to provide advice to groups on what to include in a business plan and where the variables are which need challenging to ensure that risk is minimised when a project is borrowing large sums. Working with a more experienced housing partner (for example, a local housing association) may simplify the work of the group considerably, but safeguards must still be in place.
Delivery Options and Partnerships for CLH
Accredited Community Led Homes Adviser Andy Lloyd talked us through a few different approaches which have been used successfully by other groups, to make the varied achievements of their projects possible.
Starting with the DIY approach where the community is in control of every aspect of the project and is responsible for every choice and decision which must be made along the way. For example, Keswick Community Housing Trust. The DIY model has a great deal to recommend it if your group has all the skills and time they will need to learn as they go and the staying power to see a project through the inevitable set-backs and challenges.
Where the resources of the group are perhaps not so great, but the vision is clear, Andy recommended creating a ‘prospectus’ for your project so that you can have an open discussion with potential partners without compromising on your ‘red lines’. Your aim may be to find a partner (usually a Registered Provider of social housing) who will do some of the heavy lifting for the group in terms of overseeing viability assessments, development management and ultimately perhaps property and tenancy management, depending on the interest of the group. This could be a short-term relationship with one partner or a consortium of partners who you work with beyond the point at which the homes are being lived in.
Whichever model is adopted, both have produced good community led homes.