“We’re not numpties!” – Driving community-led housing projects
Sarah Donohoe, our learning and networking coordinator, shares some Wizard of Oz moments from the Better Homes learning cluster.
Pulling back the curtain
At the last session of the Better Homes learning cluster – four meetings over a year for people in Big Local who’re passionate about housing – we discussed how far we’d come as a group. We’d grilled housing developers, community housing experts, local authority officers and statutory bodies, as well as sharing advice and tips within the group. Then someone said “We’re not numpties!”, and immediately the rest of the group laughed in agreement.
“It felt like the moment the curtain is pulled back in The Wizard of Oz.”
It turns out that the dedicated people driving improvements in housing locally are often already on the right track, and there was nothing mind-blowing they came across in the meetings that could transform their projects. There were no ‘experts’ with a vastly different approach.
Housing within the wider context
So what can we do to help communities to build their own homes?
We soon realised housing is just one element of each community’s plans. Some of the Big Locals attending the cluster wanted to use housing to support community spaces, or generate a modest, but long-term income for other community projects. Birchwood Big Local, for instance, want to use the ground rent from their scheme to guarantee that new play equipment being installed can be well maintained. When Whitley Bay were offered a new community space where there wasn’t an obvious opportunity to build homes, their housing plans went on ice. If we want to see more communities building homes, we need to appreciate these wider goals and occasionally competing priorities.
At the first meeting, there was great excitement about the Community Housing Fund. Unfortunately, its opening was delayed and there’s been some confusion over how community groups already funded from other sources can apply. Now that community-led housing infrastructure is being further developed, we hope there will be clarity for other community groups.
Like it or not, housing is controversial. Hearing stories from other Big Locals about barriers emerging from local authorities, or others in the community, helped to focus the group on the need to build a movement around their housing projects locally. PEACH Big Local’s community organising approach was inspirational for many in the group. Goldthorpe with Bolton-on-Dearne talked about their focus on managing the expectations of local residents by exploring feasible options, before speaking with the wider community.
When one of the group acknowledged that community-led housing projects can be perceived as risky and asked what council’s are looking for them to achieve, a local authority representative’s answer was:
“You know your communities. You understand local aspirations. And this is what you need to play up.”
Another really interesting discussion point was Homes England’s shift in focus, from market renewal in low value areas to affordability in high value areas. Could this mean Homes England will be more interested in Big Local areas in London and the South East than Big Local areas with lower housing demand?
Good things come to those who wait
While everyone was still feeling driven to improve housing in their areas at the last meeting, it was obvious looking back at the timeline we’d created in the first session that we’d been a little optimistic! Housing schemes take a long time to progress. In light of this, there were a number of calls for the Community Housing Fund to be extended, something the National Community Land Trust Network (NCLTN) are calling for. But everyone who took part in the cluster also felt that meeting together regularly had made improving housing, an undeniably lengthy process, so much more fun.
You can find more reflections from everybody who took part in the Better Homes learning clusters in this guide.
New learning clusters are starting this year. You can find out more about them on the events page of our website.