Community ownership: a Green solution to the housing crisis

While successive governments have failed to fix the housing crisis, Green Party member and housing campaigner Matt Townsend explains how the solution could be found in community ownership.

Modular low cost housing
Matt Townsend

Housing has never been less affordable in the UK, with house prices growing by 13 per cent in the last 12 months, fuelled in part by government policies such as the stamp duty holiday and low-interest rates. There are huge waiting lists for social housing and private rental housing remains expensive and often based on short term contracts.

This housing crisis is pushing home ownership out of reach for millions, especially those who don’t have a substantial deposit, at the same time as making rental housing more expensive and less secure.

It’s hard to overstate how important housing is for our physical and mental wellbeing. Anyone who has had problems finding decent housing, or who has faced eviction, will know how stressful this can be and how it impacts every other part of your life. Without a decent quality home, it’s harder to work, it’s hard to study and it’s hard to relax and maintain relationships.

We should all have the right to a place to live where we can shut the front door and feel safe and secure. This is why it’s so bad that successive governments have failed to find a solution to this crisis, and so many people continue to struggle to find affordable homes.

Over the last few decades, we have seen a whole plethora of government attempts. We have seen councils bulldoze communities to build new homes - causing huge distress and often ultimately resulting in a net reduction to the availability of affordable housing.

Time after time we’ve seen governments throw money at schemes that have claimed to make home ownership easier, but which have actually had the opposite long term result of pushing up house prices.

And every year we see the effect of poor planning when houses built on flood plains are flooded.

There is an alternative to government policies that push up house prices and inflict poorly designed building projects on communities. The alternative is, rather than focusing on individual ownership, to instead support the growth of community ownership.

Community-owned housing isn’t a new concept, and there are many different models with varying degrees of ownership and control being held by the community. But the general principle is that residents collectively own the community, including their homes, and sometimes other facilities including community centres and parks. Decisions are made through very localised democratic processes.

At WECH in Westminster, for example, 680 homes are owned collectively by the community, 43 of those newly built as a result of a desire by the community to create more truly affordable rented housing. These new homes were only possible because of the way in which the community already held ownership through a Community Land Trust.

43 new homes may not seem like a huge number on its own, but if this one small community can create this many additional homes, imagine if all local communities were put in control so they could do the same. And for 43 families these homes will be life-changing.

It is already Green Party policy to increase the amount of land held by Community Land Trusts and to replace schemes such as Shared Ownership with co-operative housing ownership models. Greens believe in affordable, secure and comfortable accommodation as a basic human right and that we need an end to the rises in housing costs. We want an end to needless demolition projects. We also believe in localised decision making.

We can implement these policies by supporting local projects such as cooperative housing and community land trusts. And we must demand that the government put significant funds towards community-led projects instead of projects and tax breaks which will mainly help line the pockets of private developers, landlords and those who benefit from ever-increasing house prices.

Community ownership isn’t limited to housing estates. Communities have taken control of pubs, shops, farms and leisure facilities. Community ownership gives a sense of empowerment and gives people an opportunity to work together for a shared purpose.

Whatever the problems faced by a community, whether it’s a shortage of housing or a lack of community facilities, the best solution will always come from within the community itself. It’s far more efficient and effective to put the community in control and provide the support it needs to flourish, rather than trying to centrally impose a solution.

Matt Townsend is Chief Executive of WECH, a community land trust based in Westminster, and a member of Islington Green Party.