At the end of October 2016, activists, campaigners, architects, planners, economists, artists, academics and professionals converged at the ‘House of the Commons’ in Oxford, under the banner ‘exploring creative solutions to the housing crisis’. Contributors came together to debunk myths, lay out the facts, unpick the implications of the recent Housing Act, share skills and voice concerns.
Organised by the architecture and design co-op Transition by Design, the three-day event set out to join the dots between housing, land use, regeneration, energy and environment, inequality and neoliberalism. It invited a view of the housing crisis as part of an interconnected systemic failure, rather than a failed sector in isolation. Crucially, people also came together to share ideas and dreams, and to hear about practical alternatives already underway.
Here, we share some of the examples featured at House of the Commons – seeds of hope shooting through the cracks of the broken system – showing how we can build our own collective utopia, today, within the shell of the old. These projects demonstrate the breadth of alternatives; there can be no one solution. What unifies them is that they all see housing as an activity, a verb rather than a noun. As John Turner, architect, community organiser and author of Freedom to Build asserts, ‘When used as a noun, housing is thought of as a commodity or product … when a verb, we think of the activity of housing itself.’
These examples show housing not as a single activity but as an interconnected system of activities and relationships between people and place – with connection to cultures and customs, care and livelihoods, food, transport and energy systems. They are outliers at the moment, while mainstream development continues to hurtle in the opposite direction towards housing as commodity, as financial asset.
Another feature these projects share, which designer Alastair Parvin suggests ‘breaks the deadlock’, is their democratisation of the design and build process. Each project unlocks in some form or other the creativity and energy of local people. It turns the question of who should build our homes on its head. As Parvin points out, ‘The people who will always build the best, most sustainable, most healthy, most affordable homes they can are the people who are going to live in them and pay the heating bills: us.’
Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB) and the Carbon Co-op
Over a million buildings in the UK currently stand empty, including empty office buildings, shops, schools and other spaces that could potentially provide shelter for many homeless communities. Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB), based in Bristol, aims to provide secure, affordable housing by buying some of the 2.2 million square feet of empty commercial spaces in the city and turning them into homes. AEOB finds potential residents for each building as early as possible, so they can be part of the design phase and establish a working community group to manage the building they live in.
There is also a lot that can be done for existing houses in poor condition. As part of the 2050 Pathways, the UK aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption by 80 per cent relative to levels recorded in 1990, yet the UK ranks worst in Europe for fuel poverty and among the worst for the state of repair of its homes.
The Carbon Co-op, a community benefit society based in Manchester, believes that the process of improving homes will be more effective if communities work together to share experiences and knowledge, and reduce costs. The co-op works with interested communities and households to retrofit existing buildings to improve energy efficiency, comfort and well-being, driving down carbon emissions and energy bills.
Sign the petition to support the latest squat for the homeless in Oxford.
Kindling: Housing co-operatives for the 21st century
Kindling is the first new housing co-operative set up in Oxford, one of the least affordable cities in Britain, in over 15 years. The group of six members battled house prices 16 times average earnings to purchase a house in East Oxford using a combination of loans from ethical lender Triodos and community investment.
Kindling is a fully mutual, tenant-owned co-operative (see box) that developed from a network of 20 people living, working and privately renting in Oxford who wanted to take control of their housing situation and create secure, affordable, low-impact, collectively-owned and managed housing. Kindling intends to build a new network of housing co-ops in Oxford that will provide a safe, stable and supportive environment for generations of politically and socially active individuals.
Homebaked: ‘Brick by brick, loaf by loaf, we build ourselves’
Homebaked is a social enterprise co‑operative and community land trust (see box) based in Liverpool that wants to improve the local neighbourhood by asking the question: how can we create a model that could answer the needs of business, local employment, revive our local high street, and eventually lead to long-term housing solutions?
Homebaked Bakery Co-operative took over a local bakery that had been forced to shut down and reopened it under community ownership. The process of refurbishing the bakery and setting up the business as a group led them to forming a community land trust. Now they work collectively to buy, develop and manage land and buildings to improve their area, including potentially providing affordable housing.
One Planet Affordable Living (OPAL)
One Planet Affordable Living (OPAL) is a new approach to housing that prioritises citizen engagement and genuine affordability using the One Planet Living framework for truly sustainable communities (see oneplanetliving.org). A partnership between Transition by Design and environmental charity Bioregional, OPAL offers a flexible process that enables communities to develop their own neighbourhoods and, in doing so, create ‘one planet’ lifestyles that address root problems such as environmental sustainability and long-term affordability. Crucially, it helps professionals and funding bodies to more effectively support communities to enhance the places where they live.
OPAL provides affordable, sustainable housing using mutual home ownership on land owned and managed through a community land trust (see box), builds clusters of 35-50 dwellings where there are possibilities for employment and engages the community throughout the process from design to build. OPAL is focused primarily on people on low to median incomes who are not entitled to government support for housing costs – typically, people who are unable to buy the lowest 25 per cent of market-value homes and struggle with market rental in high demand areas, such as London and south east England.
Just Space: demanding the right to a say in planning
The fight for decent, affordable housing is complex enough, without taking on the opaque, bureaucratic planning system. London-based organisation Just Space has been working for over 15 years to make the voices of ordinary people heard. In a recent publication, Towards a Community-led Plan for London, it brought together voices from over 100 community organisations to make a set of proposals and demands to claim rights to the city by and for those who don’t have them – people whose rights have been taken away or are under attack.
Using the law: a right to build differently
Communities have a range of rights under the Localism Act 2011, notably the community right to bid, community right to challenge, community right to neighbourhood planning and community right to build. So far, these haven’t been widely used. Designer Alastair Parvin, the National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA) and others have called for these rights to be consolidated into a new digital service that supports communities to gain access to land and professional support. Using these rights could unlock thousands of hectares of underused land in our cities and broaden the accessibility of community-led housing. Residents of Totnes, Devon, were due to vote on the UK’s first community right to build order on 23 November.
Community land trusts put assets into permanent community ownership. In 2015 there were over 170 of these trusts in England and Wales, half of which had been formed in the previous two years, showing growing demand. Their ownership structure is key to this success. By representing residents, the wider local community and and related experts, the trust can focus on the benefit for the wider community, rather than gains to individual households.
Housing co-operatives are usually organisations that collectively own and democratically manage their homes, known as ‘fully mutual’ co-ops. Residents are members of the organisations, making them both tenant and landlord. Each member gets one vote in any decision-making related to the co-operative, irrespective of their stake or investment. Other forms of co-operative housing include tenant management co-operatives and short-life housing co-operatives, which usually lease properties from a council or private landlord rather than owning outright.
Co-housing communities tend to be residents who live in individual households, typically in self-contained, private houses or apartments, but come together to manage their communities and shared activities. The symbol of this sharing culture is often the ‘common house’, a communal building for eating, socialising or even guest bedrooms. This model is very well established in the USA, the Netherlands and Denmark. In the UK, it began as a model for older, wealthier groups who combine savings to get better quality housing, support or services, but has been adapted to provide affordable housing at the Lilac (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) eco-housing project, in Leeds.
Mutual home ownership societies are another way that people can jointly own a property in co-operative housing, developed by the Co-operative Development Society and New Economics Foundation. In these societies, people can own multiple shares in the organisation that owns the home(s). Each member pays an affordable monthly payment fixed at 35 per cent of their net household income to cover maintenance and other costs. Any surplus goes towards building an equity stake in the society’s property. The value of the share can be linked to different indexes such as the housing market or local wage increases.
Until recently, building your own home was described as ‘self-build’. In 2011, the government’s Housing Strategy for England introduced the term ‘custom-build housing’, which the National Custom and Self Build Association describes as ‘where someone directly organises the design and construction of their new home’. Custom-build projects tend to be delivered by developers, either where a developer builds a one-off home or helps a group of people to build a number of homes. Currently, custom and self-build make up 10 per cent of UK house construction.
Community-led planning enables every member of a community to take part in improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of their area. It relies on people coming together locally, understanding local needs and priorities, and agreeing a range of different actions that help to improve their neighbourhood.
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas