Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite