“Getting it Built” write up

Quick, write something about it before an entire month passes! Here’s my write up of “Getting it Built!” a free day of talks and workshops that took place on a grey day in Birmingham, 6th November. So how was the day?


Well I think I won the ‘preposterously long name of organisation award’ for starters. Or I was tied with “Oxfordshire Community Land Trust and Oxford Co-Housing”. Actually two groups but come on guys, together you could almost turn that into ‘O.C.C.U.L.T’) Call me an acronym fetishist if you must.

There was a real mix of interests in the (80ish?) group. Hats off to the organisers to put together a programme that catered to relative novices as well as more established names and networks, maybe also indicative of the relative lack of this type of meeting. Most people stuck around for the full day. A good free lunch doesn’t hurt either! (and a good variety of veggie options gets double points in my book) Lots of the sessions related, in one way or the other to the Homes and Communities Agency or HCA; their guidance, policies and grants. It was hosted by Locality, UK Co-housing and the UK Community Land Trust network; a chap from Birmingham Settlement also hosted at points.

While having a coffee and waiting for the first session to start I chatted to another “generally interested individual” from near Birmingham thinking about setting up a co housing group, and later someone from Lancaster Co-Housing. “I’ve done a post about you!” I exclaimed, perhaps a little eagerly for that time in the morning. She wasn’t there to present as far as I remember – so it was nice to see that people from ‘completed’ schemes still wanted to hear about new approaches and generally support others to achieve the same.

I didn’t go with the intent of ‘reviewing’ any of the sessions, but I can go over them fairly quickly in rough order of appearance (the ones I saw at least) and add a few of my own observations about each. I am not a journalist so apologies for the clunky writing.

Witton Lodge Community Association is a social enterprise and a non-registered housing association, managing over 100 properties with 20 more being developed. These new units were part funded under the HCA Community Led Development scheme. This group did the first Community Asset Transfer in Birmingham, with the Perry Common Community Hall. This talk was interesting if slightly over my head, simply due to the fairly impressive scale they were working at. I later picked up a copy of ”Perry Common Matters”, their community newsletter giving a further look at what it’s like to live there from a residents eye view.

Habitat for Humanity, aren’t just an American charity, that was the first thing I learned! We were told about their particular focus on empty homes, mainly working in London it seems, and on one or two properties at a time. It was interesting to see development ‘framed’ within a fundraising agenda – lots of volunteers involved in the actual graft (under management of course), who also become general advocates for the charity too, or working with companies and corporates to provide their staff opportunities to ‘give something back’. It was quite a niche they filled, often with limited resources. I can’t remember the technical blurb, but they might only own the lease on the renovated property for X years before it reverts to the original owner : which is a bit sad, but on the other hand at least for that period, some affordable housing has been made available compared to the alternative of staying empty. There’s a good short video from the BBC on them here.

A Homes and Communities Agency spokesperson was next, about all I can remember here was along the lines of A: “It’s really good to see lots of interest in these schemes” and B: “If you need any actual advice, we’ll point you in the direction of Locality first of all.” Which segued appropriately to someone from Locality, explaining more about the HCA Community Led Project Funding pot. This is an early stage grant to help planning, technical assistance and achieving either conventional planning permission OR a Community Right to Build Order (though I have a sneaking suspicion the two are still linked somehow). It seems to have been quite popular, it was a £30m pot to start with and by the time of writing this there will be less than half left. Up to £35,000 is available, with some flexibility. Current applicants to this fund should be to seeking to achieve permission by March 2015, so pretty soon, all things considered. It will be interesting to see if/what follows on from this funding, as it seems to have been popular and found a gap in the market.

The last session before lunch was a quick run down of various community-led housing models – CLTs, co-housing, co-operatives, self-build/custom-build and self-help. Self-help was the one I was least familiar with – kind of a ‘we provide the shell, you provide the insides’ approach. Quite good from an affordability point of view at least, choose your own kitchen and so on. This session was aimed at the relative novices such as myself, I suspect, though it seemed some of the more established developers or housing association types in the room were also new to some of these options. In fact, in a later session, I remember one guy said he was a recently established, private, small-scale developer – he had “turned over” two or three private houses by now, and he was at the day to find out how he could work with some more community-led schemes. I have no idea if he was a good landlord or not of course, but compared to the common view of grasping, wannabe property tycoons, beady-eyed buy-to-let landlords and other such undesirables, I thought; “Well done to you sir. You could be driven solely by the bottom line if you wanted, but you have some form of a social conscience, and ironically I hope that makes you all the more wealthier for it!”

There were four sessions available after lunch, repeated twice, so I got to see two of them in total.

“Working with partners” with Birmingham settlement (and someone else who was filling in), was a general chat around the pitfalls of diplomacy and dealing with, for the most part, local councils. Not much to say here, except it was generally heartening to hear from a range of people who have managed to get ‘the system’ working for them, partnership working in times of austerity is here to stay.

“Technical issues” – with the Design Council and NASBA (National Self Build Association). This was a double-hander, going from  good concepts and ‘liveable’ designs to a whole raft of tips and strategies to find an actual plot. The Design Council ‘half’ of this talk, was perhaps quite surprising in retrospect, as the only session that dealt with aesthetic, style or design considerations – yet I imagine this is the ‘angle’ that most people get ‘hooked’ by – “I’ll build my own house and it will be beautiful.” Not to suggest that beautiful things cant also be affordable things of course- the classic triangle ‘cheap-fast-good choose two’ argument is one that the Design council ‘get’ – guess which two we seem to end up with most of the time? The NASBA half to the session addressed quite a bit of the changing policy background too, this association has really pushed on in quite a short period of time. It was interesting to hear the shared frustrations with planning officials – the bad self-builders making it worse for the good – for example, the ‘house in a barn’ story from earlier this year. They were both very frank about the challenges but in the vast majority of completed cases – the results speak for themselves, the hard work paid dividends.

A few other interesting bits I picked up, there was a charity scheme for converting unused or underused religious buildings and land to housing “Faith in affordable housing”, some flyers for a Lincolnshire meeting (might give them a shout and say hi) and some for specialist solicitors, architects and other manager/adviser types.

So in conclusion, just, wow. A really useful day.

I’ve got the general sense now, that the ‘lone ranger’ approach (if we can call it that) is only a small part of it, perhaps more of a luxury for those who can afford it, whereas community approaches seem less ‘glam’ or mainstream, but despite this are perhaps more realistic for most peoples needs. Although, with the ‘lone ranger’ approach, maybe it is not so surprising that we don’t hear so much from them. Nevertheless, both are only a small, but a very diverse and growing part of the market. I confess, my interest and my day dreams stem from this hugely individualistic drive towards complete self-sufficiency. How ironic, we might argue, that a lot of the general media discussion on the matter is individualistic same old – glam, grand designs style; it grabs your interest but ends up bringing you round to options that are more exciting, albeit in a different way. Sod your meticulous considerations of kitchen cupboard handles – how do you design a place and, hopefully without too many Soviet overtones – design a community that will bring it to life? (social realism, proletkult – someone one called the artists ‘engineers of souls’)

There is, not quite a crash landing but certainly a sense of coming back down to earth and remembering just how crucial the social aspects are to the whole thing. Setting off to build a cabin in the woods is but one approach. At the same time, we aren’t uniform, grey blobs, we have individual dreams, ambitions and desires – who bears the responsibility for meeting or denying these? (I want to read The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin again!)

Housing, from a personal or a social point of view, is simply a colossal issue. (and further from this, surely it comes down to land first of all…) Work, leisure, energy, transport, food, families… All underlined by housing (and again, the land behind/underneath it all). One concept that was repeated by many speakers was, paraphrasing, along the lines of: ‘Housing is simply the largest asset for most, if not all, communities, so what happens when they have real, shared, localised and direct ownership of this source of power; not as fragmented, isolated individuals but with a tangible, democratic stake in the matter?’

My feelings overall? I would say excitement and fear, but hey, these are basically the same thing, so on second thoughts, I would choose hope and dread. Hope that we as a society (and me as a individual, hey, I’m no saint) will get to realise all the huge promise these kinds of approaches seem to suggest and dread that it will all prove too much, too hard, too complex, too painful; more of the same? No, scratch that, just the first one. Hope.

We could do anything, but where do we start? I certainly have a better idea now!

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