Regular stories of rising house prices and a buoyant housing rental market may seem like good news for homeowners, but there are increasing numbers of people for whom the ability to rent, let alone buy, a house is out of reach. This has been exacerbated by the reduction in council housing stock through privatisation. But people have always experimented with alternative housing solutions. Here we detail a few options that are being practised in Britain. All deal with the three C's: cost, community, and control.
Squatting is usually the cheapest housing option and there are residential squats in many cities. Squatting is still legal and squatters have legal rights if they can show evidence of residence in an unoccupied building. However, it can also be a rather temporary solution, especially if the landlord decides to skip the niceties.
Low impact development
An option at the more affordable end of the self-build scale is a low impact development (LID). A roundhouse made from wood and mud (cob walls) with a grass roof, such as Tony's at Brithir Mawr in Wales, only costs £3,000 to build. It is also self-sufficient, using solar and wind power for electricity and a wood stove for heat.
Lammas Low Impact Initiatives is establishing a low impact village in Wales. Working with Pembrokeshire's innovative LID policy, Lammas plans a settlement of 20 small holdings on 175 acres. The eco-village will showcase a range of highly sustainable building and living solutions, with the Stage 1 planning application to be submitted in April 2007.
Lammas is a co-operative industrial and provident society (IPS) and is launching public shares in the project. These offer everyone the opportunity to invest in building the low impact movement as the money raised will help fund not only the Pembrokeshire development but also a network of projects across the UK.
Low impact buildings are generally constructed out of onsite and waste materials. The Brighton Earthship, for example, is entirely heated by the sun and was made from tyres rammed full of earth, with waste cans and bottles filling the gaps between the tyres.
Such solutions offer more than just low cost alternatives. Key to their aim is to reinvigorate a sense of community in the ways in which we live. Not everyone has the time or desire to build their own home and finding land in urban areas can be problematic.
With this in mind, housing cooperatives are increasingly popular in British cities. They allow collective management of a property by the tenants and for the building to be owned in common. To raise the money to buy a building housing co-ops also become IPS's that issue public loan stock. A long running example is the Cornerstone housing co-op in Leeds.
Co-housing is an arrangement whereby private dwellings are organised to encourage collaborative living while maintaining individual space. The houses share communal facilities such as workshops, open space, a playground and often a community building where residents can meet and share meals as they wish.
Cars tend to be kept to the edge of the site to create a more 'people friendly' space. The design thus encourages, but does not impose, interaction and community ties. The Springhill cohousing project in Stroud is one example; another is being established in Lancaster.
Diggers and dreamers
A good place to start with any of these options is to read Diggers and Dreamers: The guide to communal living, which lists most ongoing communities in Britain.
What is crucial to all these examples is that the control of the property remains not just with those living in it but with the wider community. These approaches challenge the profit-generating process of private ownership. This ability to control the spaces in which we live ranges from collective management to democratic ownership.
A tenant management organisation is where tenants form a management co-operative, a committee or a not-for-profit company to make an agreement with the property owner. This agreement can include taking care of maintenance in return for reduced rent or direct payment from the owner.
A more radical approach to ownership is to establish a community land trust. Land is moved permanently from private ownership into a trust for the benefit of the community. As the land can never then be sold, its value and appreciation does not threaten its use for community projects such as agriculture, workshops or residential dwellings. It is a form of democratic ownership by the local community, who consequently are able to use it in sustainable ways (see, for example, Stroud Community Agriculture.Paul Chatterton set up a housing co-op in Leeds and is involved in setting up a co-housing project in the north of England; Larch Maxey lives off-grid in a wooden chalet and is a co-founder and core group member of Lammas; Jenny Pickerill is building an eco-house - see www.autonomousgeographies.org
Paul Chatterton is a member of the Trapese Collective and set up the MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University