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Ideal homes: the story of eco co-op Lilac

A recently completed project in Leeds could be a model for co-operative housing in the future. Jenny Nelson reports

March 31, 2014
4 min read

Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.

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lilacLilac homes are not just ecological but genuinely affordable. Photo: Andy Lord

The Low Impact Living Affordable Community (Lilac) co-operative is ‘the best thing since sliced bread’, says supply teacher and founding member Fran about the cluster of 20 households four miles from the city centre of Leeds. The award winning new-builds have attracted media attention, particularly for their eco credentials such as their straw bale wall insulation and the aspiration to become ‘carbon negative’. The Sunday Times reported in November that ‘The ecos have landed’.

The living spaces benefit from shared gardens and allotments, communal laundry facilities and ample cycle storage, as well as a ‘passive solar’ design, which means that the buildings store solar heat in the winter and reject it in the summer, reducing energy costs. Such features are incorporated neatly into a set-up that at first glance could be a fairly conventional block of housing with a Swedish-style wooden finish. But there is more to Lilac than meets the eye.

House prices in the UK are again rising much more quickly than average earnings and a growing proportion of the population is falling prey to increasing rent levels and rogue landlords. Lilac is a practical response to the housing crisis.

As a ‘mutual home ownership scheme’ it brings the bottom rung of the property ladder back within reach of households on modest incomes; and, crucially, it’s designed to remain permanently affordable for future generations. The housing co‑operative and not the individuals obtained the mortgage, so borrowing is cheaper. Rent is adjusted according to ability to pay (each person pays 35 per cent of their income), and as society members residents have the democratic control of the housing community they live in.

Affordability was a strong draw for Joe, 39, who was fed up with ‘throwing money away on rent’ and is happier paying an equity share to the co-operative. ‘I have the freedom to choose what I do for a living based on something other than just how much it pays,’ he says. ‘It’s a great way of taking more control of our own lives.’

Community life is another key aspect of the project. Based on the Danish co‑housing model, which now houses around 8 per cent of Danish households, the design encourages social interaction to allow residents all the benefits of a supportive community that can work together and share resources, while keeping their own private space. ‘It’s the best of both worlds,’ says Fran, with ‘communal gardens, space and activities as well as the privacy to be grumpy, or just do my own thing like watch rubbish TV!’

A communal building provides the space for shared meals, and the Fishwick family say the social side attracted them – the prospect of not having to cook every night when they get home from work plus the occasional party. Their children can play outside safely too.

From one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom houses, Lilac is home to grandparents and children, professionals and creatives, all part of a flourishing neighbourhood where they can participate directly and where their views matter. An obvious product of secure, affordable and sociable housing is a sense of empowerment, and that feeds into the third key aim of the project: to make a positive contribution to the surrounding community. There could be all kinds of benefits to the wider community when people’s time, energy and imagination are freed up for further positive social change.

So why don’t we see many more Lilacs around the country? Establishing similar projects depends on several factors. In this case the capital build cost was covered by a loan from eco-friendly Triodos bank while the site was acquired at a reduced price from the local council. A grant from the Homes and Communities Agency helped to support the planning application process, and over about five years a small group of people worked hard to see the project through.

Until there is the political will to make this happen on a larger scale, such developments will rely upon determined groups able to seek out favourable conditions for projects that go against the grain of conventional urban regeneration. Land is in short supply and expensive, so gaining real collective control over the places where we live is difficult, but Lilac has shown it’s not just a pipe dream.

As Lilac resident Eden says, ‘I hope this is just the first to be built in the country, because if I move out I want to move to another Lilac somewhere else.’

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Jenny NelsonJenny Nelson is a Red Pepper web editor.

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