Bring down the barriers to community-led housing, by Chris Brown

Community-led housing is in an interesting place at the moment. Public support and enthusiasm is translating into a stream of new community-led housing groups appearing around the country.

I was at an inspirational gathering recently of some of the leading groups in London discussing their financial needs. They have been encouraged by seeing politicians like the mayor of London promising the creation of 1,000 community led homes, Sir Oliver Letwin recommending breaking up large sites, mayoral agency Transport for London selling land for community led housing, and the high-profile announcements by government of funding and possible public land for the sector.

But the reality in many places is different.

Some councils make it hard for community groups to sign in to their Right to Build registers, they think that community groups can't be trusted with public money, or assume that community-led means just a handful of homes and not the hundreds of homes groups in London are promoting.

In addition, the design of grant funding programmes don’t match the needs of many of the groups delivering community led housing, and are constrained by unnecessary rules and challenging timescales.

Some public agencies just can't cede the power that the phrase 'community consent' in the definition of community-led housing requires to make any old housing development into community-led housing that delivers social value.

And consent is critical. It is the process of empowering communities that delivers the social benefits from community-led housing that are so little understood in much of the public sector.

Which is why, when it happens, as it does in places as diverse as Scotland, Leeds, the London Borough of Lewisham, Bristol and Cornwall, it is so refreshing.

The Future of London think-tank is working to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding that exists between the public sector and the community sector. This is definitely a two-way street.

Communities need to learn about their unknown unknowns, to recognise their capabilities (or lack thereof) and understand the objectives and legal and other constraints public agencies work under, including the importance of prudence with public money and assets.

Similarly, public agencies need to shed their prejudices, recognise the social value community-led housing brings, learn to speak and write in plain English, and stop hiding behind illusory ogres like State Aid rules or the Housing and Regeneration Act when their more creative peers have already overcome these hurdles.

I don't often have sympathy for politicians but when you see the barriers that the organisations they are in charge of put in their way you can understand why they might get frustrated.

Key government objectives like diversifying housing supply and securing social value from public assets founder on system failure. It is surely the civic duty of all of us to try and help solve these problems through constructive dialogue.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration


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