Tuesday, 2 January 2018


I’ve spent almost a year trying to write Part 2 of Big, Bold and Beautiful …against a policy backdrop for housing and community housing, in particular, that has been either constantly changing or completely stuck. At the recent National Community Led Housing Conference in late November, I was asked to make a short contribution to one of the plenary sessions, attended by over 300 people, on the subject of ‘Scaling up, not selling out’. I spoke on the subject of ‘Growing a niche vs. changing the mainstream.’

 This is an extended version of what I said at the plenary, which I realised was what I had been trying to write all year.  So, here is ‘Big, Bold and Beautiful Part 2’, which invites you to consider that our ambition for ‘scaling up’ is about much more than just housing. Community housing is taking local action on political problems that politicians can’t or won’t tackle; particularly the impact of land prices on social and economic inequality and national productivity. It is our commitment to tackle these much bigger issues that is the natural and best safeguard against an enlarged community housing sector ‘selling out’ on our values.
Niche…mainstream…small and special…large and special…all terms of comparison that suggest that one solution about the scale of community housing may be better than another. But, what exactly are we comparing? Building another home is…just building another home. What’s special about that?

So, why do we do it…community housing? It’s the question that people in positions of power ask: “Why are you doing this? This is what we do!” Except of course, they don’t. It’s the question that colleagues ask “Why on earth do community groups spend years of their lives doing what the market or public policy should offer?” Except of course, they don’t offer.

‘Why’ is the question I always ask groups when they’re starting out, and the answers are only partly about housing. But they are all about identity and place, and politics: not traditional left and right party politics, but important ideas about how they want to live. The sense that they are working together with others to resist powerful forces that are not for the common good…being excluded from your home village, your home neighbourhood…or the opposite…being abandoned and left behind…paying so much money to buy or rent your home that the rest of your life is impoverished… loneliness and isolation, especially for older people…the effects of climate change…or a phrase I heard just recently, “These new places have no soul.

These issues lie at the heart of a politics that so-called mainstream politics is not touching. Yet ironically, it is the catchphrases of important recent political events that describe our concerns. Taking Back Control…a feeling that autonomous communities should be able to influence the forces that affect them. “Local governance” is how one group described their purpose. Better Together…the fact that the citizen and the state can work together to do things that neither can achieve on their own.

Imagine a city mayor or government minister proposing to break the link between house prices and the market and link them only to income, as the London CLT has done through effective community organising at St Clement’s Hospital? That would be a brave politician. But we citizens can do this if we think this is the right thing for our place, our community; and the state can then work to help us.

The power of community organising and community knowledge

The Living Wage Campaign also began through community organising. No politician would have dared embark on such a risky endeavour; unilateral interventions into the labour market. But now it is established as a widely accepted norm, politicians can endorse and adopt it without risk. Businesses respond to the moral imperative, through peer pressure, political scrutiny and public opinion. There are many historical precedents of social innovation led by citizens and civil society organisations, and subsequently adopted as public policy norms: public education, public libraries, public parks, hospitals, birth control, probation services etc. Some of these are now returning to their community roots as ‘austerity’ or ‘small government’ dogma bites. Therefore, why not also ‘housing’ in the control of those who live in it? 

Davis receiving his wizard's hat as the first
recipient of the John E Davis Award for
Scholarship at the 2012 Conference of the
National CLT Network USA in Burlington,
When Bernie Sanders became Mayor of Burlington in Vermont, in 1981, he faced an affordable housing crisis in the city. He did two things. He brought community organising into the town hall, and brought in an ‘expert’, John Emmeus Davis, from the Institute of Community Economics, to advise the state and its citizens on how to set up community land trusts. Davis describes community housing groups as occupying ‘the contested ground at the intersection of property, power, and place.’  He joins with other practitioners and advocates of community organising, like Luke Bretherton, writing in his recent book 'Resurrecting Democracy', in emphasising the need for community groups to own the information about their circumstances and the particular local context in which they are working.
The relaunch of the Community Housing Fund, by the Housing Minister at the conference, is therefore an extraordinary opportunity. The Community Housing Fund’s investment into an expanded network of local community housing support hubs will create a unique laboratory of housing market innovation, with a wealth of locally gathered evidence about what is needed and what works in particular places.

Government has never before put resources into developing highly localised policies. Civil servants are still nervous about it, and are probably wondering why such a lot of effort needs to go on spending quite a small amount of money: small for them, that is. They certainly can’t develop locally appropriate housing solutions on their own. But we could help them, and together we can learn how to make housing policy differently. We should all thank that nice Mr Osborne, the most political of recent Chancellors, and author of the Community Housing Fund, for this extraordinary political opportunity to scale up our influence, and help change the mainstream politics of housing.

Fair Housing - Protest, Action, Hope 

City Hall, Burlington, Vermont -
Fair Housing Month is a regular part of
civic life
Those in established positions of power commonly think of community housing groups as a kind of protest…implicit criticism of them… sometimes a threat, but mostly a bit of a nuisance. They might well be right. The market and policy have failed to provide the kind of housing many citizens need, as even central government now readily accepts.

But Davis describes citizens and communities as problem solving as well as problem defining. These are protests, certainly of anger, but not of victimhood. They are protests for a better future, rather than imagined happier pasts. These are protests of impatience and action, with citizens volunteering to do it themselves, rather than waiting for solutions that have not yet come from those who might have been expected to be more helpful and competent.

They are, above all, protests of hope. One of the longest serving volunteers at the RUSS self-build CLT project in Lewisham was asked about his attitude to the project after he failed to be allocated a home in the ballot, “Oh, I’ll continue to support it. There are not many things that you can do that are so hopeful.”  That’s what ‘Taking Back Control’ and ‘Better Together’ can look and feel like: genuine civic participation of a kind that we desperately need to rebuild the foundations of our decaying democratic institutions, and repopulate them with people experienced in practical local political activism, and not political careerism.

Terms like ‘niche’, ‘small is beautiful’, ‘alternative’ (to what?) are all tried and tested tactics used by those already in positions of power and influence for defining ‘the other’, and then marginalising ‘the other’ as a perceived threat to their interests: ‘the other’, in this case, being all of us citizens.  Whereas, in an effective democracy, citizens and community housing groups should justifiably have as powerful a voice in making housing policy as the supply side: the housebuilders, housing associations and professionals with whom central and local government traditionally make their housing policies and plans.

The demand side has never had a place in policy making.  We citizens are the voice of the demand side. It’s time for us to become a powerful voice in making housing policies that are right for our places. Community housing is not a niche activity; it is about fair housing opportunities for all.

The task ahead…not more of the same

All the national community housing bodies must now work productively together. They must build on and share their strengths, and acknowledge and repair their weaknesses. They will need to reimagine their identities and structure. Some already are. The primary task is no longer to secure a future for themselves, but to grow the number of informed everyday citizens actively involved in the housing challenges of their place, creating powerful networks of national and local voices arguing for and actually delivering fair housing solutions. They must work together with national and local government in a new fair housing alliance that speaks for every citizen and every community.

Attending two launches of new local community housing hubs, since the conference, was affirmation, if any was still needed, that only effective local networks of involved citizens, community groups, councils, landowners and enabling professionals and developers have the entrepreneurial capability to expand community housing production. The Community Housing Fund has the ability to give new momentum to the policy trajectory initiated in 2009 by DCLG’s Housing Construction Roundtable, charged by the Treasury with diversifying the supply side and increasing housing supply overall after the financial and housing market crash; including with community and self-build homes.

The one-off project specific support developed in the early days of CLTs, and the piecemeal resources available to housing projects emerging through the Community Rights programme have been critical to creating the political moment in which the Community Housing Fund became possible. The CLT Start Up Fund, for instance, was essential for its time, and will continue being valuable. The Community Right to Build Seedcorn and its successor programme filled a temporary gap. But now we need something radically different.

The bureaucratic and geographic limitations of Community Rights, their policy instruments, and the thinking that goes with them, are simply not fit for the purpose of creating new markets and expanding supply through community housing. If they need to be retained at all, they should be re-focussed so that they are not just one more of those unnecessary barriers to production that then takes an age to be removed. The number of CLT and cohousing groups have doubled to over 350 active projects in the last few years. There are have been a small handful of Community Right to Build Order projects since 2011. Draw your own conclusions. Holding on to past practice and policies in one policy area will become a serious and damaging drag on progress in another.

Our role, as citizens and community organisations, is now the creation of new markets, expanding supply and innovating in a policy area almost devoid of innovation, with new products, new suppliers, new ideas about building design and social organisation. We actually do this rather well already. We make markets by liberating the energy, intelligence and knowledge of citizens and our communities. If only existing rules apply, we will only get what we always got. We know that doesn’t work, and so the Fund would be wasted: ‘doomed from the start’!

The role of government is to retain strategic oversight, (as seems to be the intention with a departmental advisory board), and to focus investment on what works in particular places, or has greatest potential to work in the future, and can be used to improve mainstream production. As Professor Whitty, the Government’s Interim Chief Scientific Adviser, said in his address to Care and Repair England, just before Christmas, about how government should respond to citizens’ demands for new housing and care choices for older people, ‘Look at the data, and listen to what people tell you’.

The role of community organising is examined more fully in  my essay ‘Taking self-build out of its ‘small and special box’: citizens as agents for the political and the social of self-build’ (pp 247-266) in ‘Self-Build Homes: Social Discourse, Experiences and Directions’ edited by Michaela Benson and Iqbal Hamiduddin and published by UCL Press December 2017
Available to download http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/10038399/1/Self-Build-Homes.pdf