Breakfast with the Fabians

by Chris Dornan on September 24, 2008

The CCH were asked to to provide someone for a Fabian breakfast meeting, Building Sustainable Communities: Can housing policy tackle worklessness?, at the Liberal Democrat conference. Being the closest member of the CCH General Council to Bournemouth yours truly was in attendance.

There were no gaps around the table with about a dozen in attendance, the panelists being Lembit Opik, the Lib Dem spokesman on housing, Anabel Palmer, Director, Southern Housing Foundation, and Kevin Browne, Reed in Partnership. With attendees from the sponsors, the Chartered Institute of Housing and Groundwork and others the Fabian Society had collected a representative sample of folks both thinking about and working to address problems related to exclusion and social housing.

[We were using Chatham House rules so I can’t attribute any apart from my own comments.]

The meeting kicked off with a discussion of how difficult and complicated the problem was. While it is clearly not the case that losing your home means you will lose your job, add in other factors, such as breakdowns in personal circumstances, addiction, etc., it can make it difficult to hold onto a job. Homelessness increases vulnerability.

It was observed that the stigma associated with renting and social housing in general in the UK can cause problems, along with the social breakdown and increased rates of unemployment that often accompany low-quality housing.

One participant pointed out their own surveys indicate that people in social housing have modest materialistic goals (e.g., an annual wage of £15,000). I think almost everyone in the meeting agreed that economic activity was not the end goal; facilitating people’s pursuit of happiness was the goal; happy people making for happy and functioning communities that contribute to the wider community.

With regards delivery one participant felt strongly that the government should stop commissioning pilot projects and get on with delivery. While this has a good measure of sense it was curious given what happened next. The group was getting into quite a funk at the quantities of money that needed to be wrung out of the public purse with no short-term payback, several electoral cycles being needed to see the full benefits of serious regeneration. This astonished me.

I felt I had to emphasise at this point that pouring money over communities is an very inefficient way of regenerating them. Indeed it seems obvious to those of us in the co-operative housing sector that there is an unhealthy compulsive tendency of professionals to keep trying to do things to/for communities rather than give them the means to solve their own problems. I could have picked a number of examples where empowering the tenants had led to community regeneration without an extra penny being spent over other social housing schemes, including my temporary residence in Dryad Hosuing Co-operative, or Starley, or Watmos, or Bloomsbury but I lit on Redditch Co-operative Homes.

Members of housing co-operatives have no self-esteem problems arising from being co-operators; quite the opposite. Instead of responsibility being taken away from people, as is so often the case with social housing, responsibility remains with the tenants. Indeed co-operators are used to taking responsibilities at the community level rather than stopping at the the household level, leading to higher levels of community engagement and healthier communities than those of more wealthy property-owning counterparts.

Redditch Co-operative Homes is particularly interesting because of the scalable top-down way it was constructed a partnership between Accord Housing Association and Redditch Borough Council. Every social-housing place created in Redditch on council land for the last ten years or so is part of a housing co-operative. The first step in creating any housing scheme in Redditch being to form a co-operative of the future tenants who supervise the design of the scheme and take over the management of it once it is completed. RCH co-operatives retain the option of buying the freeholds. The tenants are rightly proud of their co-operatives, and a visit to Redditch readily confirms that these are happy communities with none of the problems that are often associated with social housing. Rents are low and the costs are no higher than other kinds of social housing.

It was said by another participant at the meeting that co-operative housing still didn’t address the problem of preparing people for the workplace, but this hasn’t been our experience in the housing co-operative movement where many people have been rehabilitated by becoming active in housing co-operatives. It is easy to forget that the co-operatives are substantial organisations run by their members.

Interestingly many of the attendees hadn’t heard of RCH. Interest in visiting Redditch was expressed by various people attending the meeting.

Leave a Comment