I’VE spent the past 50 or so years of my life carrying a torch for community-led initiatives in England.
It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride, but no less enjoyable for that. And in the late 1970s, I found myself at the ‘launch’ of a movement that has now become an established part of the housing landscape in England.
I’d left university and begun working in Manchester for Lancashire County Council. That was in 1972 and I was a lowly planning assistant.
Over the next two years, I became disillusioned with the bureaucratic planning process and began to immerse myself in community housing campaigns: in Manchester, against proposals to demolish Victorian terraced housing in its urban villages; and in neighbouring Salford, where local people wanted demolition, so they could move into better, new housing.
While running an extramural housing course at Manchester University and authoring a publication on self-help housing, I worked with communities who wanted their housing refurbished rather than demolished.
And it opened my eyes to how powerful local communities can be when they decide to take control of their own lives and challenge the status quo.
But those communities, under intense pressure, knew they could not have done it on their own; they needed people like us to work with them.
They needed people to help them find their voice.
So our little group of young, enthusiastic, unpaid ‘experts’ had proved very successful – but how on earth could that be rolled out across the country to enable many more communities to find their voice?
And how could it ever be paid for? It was another three years before I started to put some flesh on the bones of that idea.
And I was not alone. In London, Liverpool and elsewhere, others with a similar mind were beginning to look at the same thing. But no-one had heard of a ‘housing hub’. So we all began talking to each other.
By 1976, I had teamed up with one of those people – in Sunderland, in the north-east of England – and we set about creating one of the country’s first community-led housing support hubs.
Except we didn’t call it that back then – we called it a secondary housing co-operative. Banks of the Wear, as it was called, promoted and supported 23 housing co-ops during the next ten years, all of them started from scratch in some of the north-east’s toughest neighbourhoods.
At its peak, during the mid 1980s, Banks of the Wear had 15 employees and a turnover of £2 million a year. It employed architects, development specialists, financial experts, co-op enablers, trainers and housing managers.
Between 1976 to 1986, it co-ordinated successful annual funding bids to the Westminster government, producing more than 500 new co-op homes.
Forty-five years on, many of these pioneering co-op housing initiatives are still active, but Banks of the Wear has long since disappeared into the archives, steadily squeezed by shifting policy on urban regeneration, various funding crises and a collapse in support for housing co-op development.
A small number of ‘hubs’ have, however, survived and, fortunately, over the past three years, the ‘wheel has been re-invented’. Once again, I found myself close to the centre of things.
In 2016, Westminster seemed keen to put the brakes on tax breaks for buy-to-let landlords and, at the same time, a strong political lobby emerged for supporting the small but growing Community Land Trust sector, much of it in south-west England.
The rather surprising outcome was a £300 million pot of money suddenly appearing in the Budget. The Community Housing Fund, as it was known, brought the occasionally fractious parts of the community-led housing sector together – big money can be a great unifier.
And part of it – around £3 million – was specifically to build a new, national network of ‘housing support hubs’, a recognition that community-led housing doesn’t usually happen on its own – it needs promoting and supporting, as well as funding. The Greater London Authority provided separate support for a new, London hub.
Although the promised £300 million never materialised in its entirety, the Community Housing Fund was a real game-changer. It drew in some major charitable funders, including the Nationwide Foundation and Power to Change, to support the growing sector.
And in 2017, it led me to research and co-write new national guidance (here) on how a national network of support hubs could be established.
Four years on, there are now 27 support hubs up and running, covering almost every part of the country.
The aim was that no community, wanting to build or refurbish homes, should be prevented from accessing the expertise needed to make it happen.
Alongside the Community Housing Fund’s £3mllion, Power to Change invested heavily in hubs in five metropolitan conurbations – Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Teesside.
Forty-five years after I had helped establish the first set of support ‘hubs’, a new and much more comprehensive infrastructure for community-led housing has now been put in place. It’s been a very satisfying process.
So what exactly are these hubs, how have they been set up and what exactly do they do?
Some hubs are based in Councils for Voluntary Service, others in supportive housing associations or development trusts. Some have been set up as consultancies, others have been established from scratch as independent organisations. Some cover whole regions, others just one or two counties.
Hubs are certainly a mixed bag in England.
They promote community-led housing in all its forms to anyone who will listen, run events and seminars and act as the first point of contact for both communities and a wide range of stakeholders. They are the driving force behind the growth of the sector across England.
Every hub has a set of paid and sometimes unpaid advisors – people who work with communities to help them bring forward viable housing projects to meet their needs.
There is now a national accreditation scheme, endorsed by the Chartered Institute of Housing, which these advisors are expected to complete, giving communities an assurance that when they come to a hub they are getting the best possible advice.
So what have I leaned over the past four years about hubs, which may be useful in a Scottish context?
- Well, they don’t come cheap – they need grant funding from government to get them up and running for at least their first three years;
- They need to be creative, with a flexible, light-touch business model, low overheads, a broad funding base and a commercial relationship with their clients;
- They need to build close links with local authorities, housing associations and co-operatives, plus other key stakeholders;
- They need to have a close relationship with government;
- They need to build an asset base to secure their financial sustainability and offer different options to communities wanting to pursue their own housing schemes;
- They need to be grounded, where possible, in sustainable hosts;
- They need to have governance structures which provide opportunities for the communities they provide services for – to be able to hold them to account; and
- They need to have a geography that makes sense to communities, gives them the best possible chance of financial sustainability and avoids the risk of competition with other hubs.
This last point is particularly pertinent just now, as the Community Housing Fund tap is just about to be turned off, for at least a year, and hubs are having to revisit their business plans to find a way of sustaining themselves without direct government support.
My own hub, Communities CAN, which I helped set up, is now planning a merger which will extend its services to cover the whole of north-east England except the Tees Valley (where there is another hub).
Others can judge what this might mean for Scotland if it became clear that a network of support hubs would be beneficial there.
What I would say though is that, without a support infrastructure of some sort, any emerging new wave of community-led housing, in all its forms, will find it hard to establish itself. There is only so much most communities can do on their own – accessing bespoke specialist support is one of the keys to their success.
The strapline for the Communities CAN website is ‘Community-led housing: ordinary people doing extraordinary things’.
The job of a hub is to help those people turn their dreams into reality.
Pete Duncan is a freelance consultant working on community-led housing in England and a trustee of the National Community Land Trust Network.
Photo: courtesy of Pete Duncan, pictured right, standing, in 1979, outside the first housing co-operative street in Sunderland, with the original Banks of the Wear ‘hub’ team.