In Community We Trust

It's time for councils to put housing back in the hands of the people, writes Tom Chance.

November 20, 2018 · 6 min read
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell

When Jeremy Corbyn tweeted his video about Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust, he couldn’t have picked a better example. This Community Land Trust is in Toxteth, Liverpool exemplifies a new form of municipal socialism that creates community power, not just council power.

Liverpool is home to one of the greatest concentrations of housing co-operatives in the country. The city’s “co-op spring” followed anarchist planner Colin Ward’s 1974 manifesto, Tenants Take Over, and led to dozens building new homes across the city.

In the mid-1980s the Militant council effectively took control back, bringing new co-ops in development into council hands. That strand of left politics sees co-ops as a threat to state socialism and so helped to stifle any further growth. Through the 1990s and 2000s the orthodoxy became increasingly market-based, with “housing market renewal” under New Labour seeking to demolish swathes of deprived Liverpool terraces and build new homes that would attract more buyers and housing associations into the area.

The community fought back, with some of those housing co-op people helping a resurgence of community led approaches. Corbyn’s short video documents the resistance to demolition, and the emergence of Granby 4 Streets as a means by which the local community could take back control of their homes and streets. Residents set up a Community Land Trust (CLT), started a community market, attracted over £1 million of investment, and persuaded the council to initially transfer 13 homes to them. They’ve renovated 11 homes, 6 of which will be let at low rents and 5 sold through a model that keeps the prices permanently affordable to local residents. The other two homes are being turned into a winter garden.

This tale, told in detail by Matthew Thompson, brings the Liverpool story full circle, and as Corbyn points out exemplifies a form of municipalism in which the council and community work together towards a common goal. It stands in contrast to a paternalistic municipalism, in which council housing is the only solution. A municipalism that connects the council and commons can address the powerlessness felt by many people.

CLTs first emerged in the USA, as civil rights leaders looked for ways to consolidate black power through land ownership. The model deliberately puts control of land into Trusts that anyone who lives and works in the area can join, with aims to serve the wellbeing of the whole community. They give real power to local communities to provide the sorts of homes and services their area really needs, whatever that means to the people of Toxteth or Taunton.

CLTs and housing co-operatives, along with co-housing, development trusts and self-help housing, are all part of a Community Led Housing movement that is growing in confidence.

The Government has increasingly backed the sector. In July it finally launched the £163 million Community Housing Fund, enough to help most of the groups with projects in the works to finance them. There are over 5,000 homes in the pipeline.

Liverpool is one of a growing number of cities backing community led housing. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has embedded community led housing in his Housing Strategy and the London Plan, co-funded an Enabling Hub for the capital to help new projects develop, and recently awarded £1 million to RUSS, an eco-self-build CLT in South London. Leeds, Bristol and Manchester are all putting in places policies and funding to support the sector, and we hope many more will follow.

But there is still resistance, or reluctance, from some quarters of the left. Some seek to control what communities aspire to, and how they get there, making perfect the enemy of the good. There aren’t yet enough CLTs led by working class people and people of colour, though their number is growing. Co-ops vary in their depth of democratic participation, sometimes because tenants really don’t want much involvement in the day-to-day. Co-housing groups often involve private gain alongside convivial community living.

The National CLT Network and our sister bodies for housing co-ops and cohousing have adopted a set of principles to safeguard what we see as essential elements. But beyond that we are happy to allow innovation and diversity to flourish. Labour administrations in London, Bristol, Leeds and elsewhere subscribe to this view.

Community led housing is also sometimes seen as a threat to, or a distraction from, council housing. When land opportunities are scarce, some councils are squeezing out CLTs and co-ops in favour of their own housing companies. When we toured the country speaking to our member CLTs this year, a message we heard again and again was “our Labour council isn’t supporting us”.

The Labour Party’s Housing Green Paper pledged to continue the Community Housing Fund but was overwhelmingly focused on the role of councils and housing associations. It lacked a strong vision of a municipalism that included community control and power.

John McDonnell lent weight to the CLT movement when he said, at a recent Red Pepper event, that CLTs pose “a huge challenge to the existing power relationships within our society at the moment”, one which he said “could be fundamentally important”.

McDonnell’s vision, Corbyn’s enthusiasm and the practical support of figures like Sadiq Khan show a growing support from different intellectual currents in the Labour Party. Will the Party’s policy now catch up?

Tom Chance is the Director of the National CLT Network

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