Still waiting for the revolution: how do we build more co-operative homes?

The benefits of co-operative housing are screamingly obvious. But what will it take to make it snowball in the UK?

Nic Bliss


When you hear in the UK about the thousands of wonderfully innovative, attractive and environmentally friendly affordable co-operative homes being built annually in Vienna (which delegates to the recent CCH annual conference did), Berlin and in other European locations, the only question you can ask is why isn’t the same housing revolution happening here?

Let’s face it … if we were to publish “The UK Housing Establishment Guide on How to House Your Population – Our Record since the 1990s”, it wouldn’t exactly be a bestseller anywhere in the world.

What makes the UK’s cock-up/complacency/inertia/lack of political leadership/paternalism (delete as applicable) more bizarre is that the benefits of co-operative housing are so screamingly obvious. Communities who have a real say in their homes – their design and subsequent management – treasure and steward them. And – duh – community-led housing is about … community. People forming strong community bonds, mutual support networks making so much difference to local people.

The list of benefits goes on. In Berlin baugruppen (‘building groups’) deliver homes 25% cheaper than the private sector, and in the UK, co-operative approaches bring home ownership within reach of people for whom the housing ladder has long since disappeared. Co-operative schemes usually result in community campaigns in favour of planning permission contrast that with traditional developer-driven schemes, which often see communities lying down in front of bulldozers. This means homes being built that otherwise wouldn’t be.

Environmental standards are usually higher, and individuals in co-operative housing usually get skills development opportunities. And crucially, community generates community. Members of co-operative housing schemes become the lifeblood of other local community initiatives.

At the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) we recently launched “1001 Co-operative and Community-led homes: the Housing Revolution Starts Here. It describes the wide array of co-operative homes being developed in England and Wales – “the diversity of what is being developed shows us the way. The beauty of co-operative housing is that it’s about local people working out what they want to do and making it happen in their way.”

Each new co-operative housing scheme leads to more interest. We aren’t at the tipping point yet, but what will it take to make it snowball? Here are the things that I believe are essential:

  • Political vision, bravery and leadership – it’s time for hundreds of council, housing association and other leaders to back the growth of the sector.
  • Seeing is believing – the UK housing revolution has started – but on a small scale. In Europe co-operative housing is happening on a large scale. They all started from an idea. Look at what is happening in co-operative housing in UK and Europe. Meet the people who are making it happen.
  • Where the will is there – co-operative housing can be made to happen. This doesn’t need to be that complicated. Of course money, land and people are challenges. But lenders to co-operative housing know that community stability means safe lending – the money will be there as the sector grows. Land is not easy to find – but European countries have it down as a fine art – allocating land specifically for co-operative housing – why can’t we do that here? And people – well the biggest problem there is that people just don’t know that co-operative housing is an option for them. When they do – there’s no shortage of people who want to do it. People are screaming for an alternative to the stagnant alternatives currently available to them.
  • Trust people. In the UK we micro-manage everything. Sure – rules and regulations need to be there. But this is not rocket science. Let’s start trusting communities – they can do it.

Nic Bliss is Head of Policy at the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH)