Blog: “Kick-starting Community Led Housing” by Tom Beale of Ecomotive, Bristol
Introduction from Community Land Scotland
Ahead of our planned launch of a Community Ownership Hub in Glasgow and Clyde Valley in 2021, Community Land Scotland has been looking into ways to support the expansion of community ownership in Scotland’s urban areas.
We have been particularly interested in the emerging Enabling Hub model for community-owned housing in England and how it is supporting wide-spread uptake of innovative policy. On a visit to the Bristol and West Hub in 2019, we heard how Bristol City Council was using a detailed methodology to calculate social value with a view to releasing land for community-owned housing. This led, in 2020, to their first land disposal call offering eleven council-owned sites for housing at discounted rates.
It is clear to us at Community Land Scotland that the regional enabling hub model has proven potential in facilitating accelerated change in new forms of community owned development. We asked Tom Beale of Ecomotive, which was involved in setting up the Enabling Hub in Bristol, to tell us more about social value and land disposal in the city.
Kick-starting Community Led Housing – Social Value and Land Disposal in Bristol
The summer of 2020 has seen a flurry of excited activity across Bristol’s emerging Community Led Housing sector. In Hillfields, a post-WW1 estate in the north east of Bristol, the local community hub is developing plans for 10 homes adjacent to their buildings, and aims to create a long-term income to support their work in the neighbourhood. In Lockleaze, the neighbourhood trust are developing plans for 24 units across 3 sites, creating permanently affordable homes for local residents. Bristol’s Tiny House Community are planning 15 affordable homes on an infill site in Sea Mills, while Furze Housing Co-op are drawing up plans for 23 affordable rented rooms in a 4-house co-operative.
The upsurge in activity has been enabled by a progressive City Council which views community organisations as partners, with whom it can collaborate to achieve a shared vision. The Council’s approach to this discussion was ‘what do you need to make it work?’ and by the summer of 2020, Councillor Paul Smith, Bristol City Council’s former cabinet member for housing, was describing community led housing as one of three planks to the council’s housing strategy.
“The Council has responded to the call from the community led housing sector and seeks to work with people to build strong sustainable communities; provide an alternative affordable housing offer; to transfer assets and power to community groups; and to enable communities to thrive”Kelly Thomas, BCC Community Led Housing officer
But the journey to reach this point goes back several years.
In late 2016 the national support framework for community led housing (CLH) was just beginning to be put together. Here in Bristol, the local Community Land Trust, Ecomotive and other organisations active in Bristol’s community led housing sector got together to explore what support the sector needed and how a regional ‘hub’ could help get more projects off the ground. We spent several months talking to housing groups all over the city, to the city council, and reaching out to our colleagues in different parts of the country.
It became clear that many CLH groups experienced the same 3 broad issues: access to consistent, good quality professional support; access to finance; and access to land. Groups struggled if just one of these elements was missing, and progress often ground to a halt. The Hub’s emerging mission was to ensure CLH groups had access to all three elements in order to support their success. The groups forming the Hub had a lot of experience and knowledge and were already working with groups to provide professional and technical advice and support. However, the other issues were more structural and required a broader approach.
Our request to Bristol City Council was simple: give communities access to unused land around the city to build the housing they need. As the new Hub began to provide groups with access to sustained professional advice, funders found it easier to justify investment into their projects, but without affordable sites, the projects would never progress, and groups that looked at the murky, expensive and risky world of commercial land sales rapidly lost heart. Providing affordable access to building plots completed the circle of support – each element de-risked the other two, and the provision of all three of advice, land and finance removed the substantive barriers to success for communities.
Bristol City Council had already agreed to provide low-cost land to a couple of community led housing projects, including Bristol Community Land Trust’s first scheme on the site of a former chapel-turned-school, and Ambition Lawrence Weston’s Astry Close scheme, and it was beginning to be flooded with more requests from groups all over the city. The Council saw the value of community led housing projects to the city and have always been a strong partner. However, there was concern that the approach would be open to legal challenge, so it sought a strong policy framework to head off this risk, and a programme approach that would streamline the process.
The 1972 Local Government Act limited the power of Local Authorities in England and Wales to dispose of assets for less than ‘best consideration’ (full price secured in an open market) except with the permission of the Secretary of State. This was extended in England in the 2003 General Consent Regulations, which allowed disposals to be made without referral to the Secretary of State where the difference between ‘best consideration’ and the actual price was less than £2m. However, the mechanism to determine how ‘social value’ should be described and measured was never described in statute – and this was enough to give the lawyers within Bristol City Council pause for thought.
(A useful guide to the English regulations has been published by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Scottish law governing disposal for less than best consideration appears to be set out more clearly, and non-statutory guidance to the legislation has been published by the Scottish Government)
To address the legal concerns, we reviewed different ways to put a value on the social benefits created by the housing. We eventually adopted the social value calculator for real estate disposals already being worked up by the national Social Value Portal, and this calculator was integrated into the disposals process. This had some major benefits, as well as being an off the shelf product, Bristol was already using the same model for its procurement policies.
The formal creation of a CLH Land Disposal Policy tied the disposal of land to the social benefits such schemes would provide – whether in volunteer hours, development of skills, reduction of CO2 or supporting local businesses, suppliers and jobs. And importantly, the policy set out the application process itself.
The policy was adopted by Bristol City Council in February 2020 and the formal application process was launched on 1st of May, offering 11 council-owned sites for use by community led housing projects. Following the bid deadline on 31st August, we hope to discover in the next couple of weeks which bids have been successful, but regardless of this, the process has undoubtedly instigated a surge of interest in community led housing. With a realistic prospect of securing affordable sites, communities are able to effectively and proactively work to provide the homes they need.
We also hope for a next round of land disposals, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. The application process could be simpler and more accessible. The social value measures used could be more relevant to housing and better capture the real benefits of the schemes. Most of all, we hope that if we collectively create some beautiful homes from the sites offered in this first round, we may secure larger and better sites in the future, giving communities the chance to build more homes and have greater impact.
But let’s give the last word to Kelly Thomas:
“The Community Led Housing Land Disposal policy has enabled the release of sites directly to the sector and I am genuinely proud of the quality, innovative thinking and raw commitment coming through from local community groups in bids for these sites. I believe the sector will deliver new models of affordable housing and has something new and exciting to offer. I look forward to working with this dedicated sector and to creating real homes that offer affordability and community support.”Kelly Thomas, BCC Community Led Housing officer
Tom Beale is a director of Ecomotive, a not-for-profit workers co-operative supporting community led housing and self-build, and a freelance social enterprise advisor.