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Community land trusts are the next social housing revolution: 'It's about empowering people' 

Community-led developments have been cropping up around the country at an impressive rate in the last decade

People standing in front of a new build

Community at Citizens House

In the late 1960s, community concern about homelessness saw the re-emergence of housing associations – non-profit organisations offering low-cost social housing for people on low incomes. Recognised by the government as a vital mechanism for social housing, the 1974 Housing Act gave these associations significant funding for the first time. By 1980, local authorities and housing associations had built 4.4 million homes. 

In the ’80s, Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Right to Buy policy allowed tenants to buy their council houses at significant discount and forbade councils from replenishing their housing stock. Between 1980 and 1995, over two million homes were sold off, massively depleting the UK’s stock of social housing. This was not a gap that housing associations alone could fill, and the seeds of the current housing crisis were decisively sown.  

There are around 1.5 million fewer social homes today than in 1980. Property developers with an obligation to build ‘affordable homes’ are permitted to define ‘affordable’ as up to 80% of the market price. 

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But what if we could step outside the ever-inflating housing bubble to find another way? In Lewisham, 11 new homes have been planned, built, bought and moved into, by local working people. These homes’ values are based on the average income in the borough rather than price in the housing market, and they’ll stay like that forever. When residents move on, they’ll sell at the same value.   

Citizens House is London’s first community land trust (CLT), built as a result of a 10-year campaign by Lewisham Citizens, a local community group. United in their dissatisfaction that people in the community were no longer able to afford to live in the place they grew up, they took matters into their own hands.

Nearly 500 Lewisham residents became part of London CLT and together built a complex of permanently affordable homes, opened in March this year, with the backing of funding from Big Issue Invest, The Big Issue’s social investment arm. BII’s Glenn Arradon says, “Under our affordable housing programme (funded by a £10m revolving loan from the GLA), we have a target of supporting the creation of 200 new affordable homes in the capital by 2027. Citizens House is one of the projects that helped us achieve that goal.”

For Citizens House, selecting an architect was a community decision. “It’s usually done behind closed doors by people who think they know best,” says Oliver Bulleid, executive director of London CLT. “But London CLT drew up a shortlist of architects and asked the community to make the final decision.”  

Archio, the architect chosen, prioritised visiting people, listening to their concerns and needs. “Community led development is about empowering [people] to have a voice and be heard, and understanding local input is as valuable as knowledge from a technically qualified person,” Bulleid explains.  

This approach unlocks greener opportunities, too. “When you’ve got 20 homes being built together by people who know each other, you realise maybe you don’t need 20 lawnmowers, or 20 washing machines or 20 cars,” says Jimm Reed, development director of Leeds Community Homes. “There’s an
ability to share resources.”  

Community-led developments have been cropping up around the country at an impressive rate in the last decade. In 2010, there were 600 CLT homes, today there are 1,711, with an additional 5,413 in the pipeline. CLT Network research shows there’s potential for another 278,000 to be built. To achieve it, communities need to be viewed as collaborative players. 

“We need to bring in developers, housing associations, councils, who are established to do a lot of the heavy lifting,” says Tom Chance, chief executive of CLT Network. “It’s about communities commissioning the homes they want and having stewardship over them.” 

Often, the land available is inherently risky, the places private developers and councils tend to stay well away from. “In Leeds, there’s a massive shortage of affordable land suitable for this kind of thing,” explains Reed. Leeds Community Homes are currently developing on a site in Armley, on a patch of land in a deprived area which nobody’s been able to do anything with in the last 20 years. “We’re dealing with the stuff other people can’t.” 

In 2016, the government established the Community Housing Fund, which levelled the playing field between CLTs and other developers. But at present the fund isn’t going to be renewed, so the future of CLTs is in jeopardy. “If the government does want to empower communities it needs to support them financially and see that as a long-term investment,” says Bulleid. He compares CLTs to the early days of housing associations. “Housing associations aren’t really the same thing as they were when they first set out; they’ve had to morph into private developers. 

“There’s a potential for us to grow. In 50 years’ time, 20% of housing stock in London could be CLTs,” he says. “But it would be a shame if the funding support wasn’t there and in 30 years time we ended up no longer being community led.”  

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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