Drilling into land and planning for community-led housing

One of the most significant challenges for community-led housing (CLH) development is access to land. In the long-term, an approach for securing private sites will be needed, but the conversation today is all about using public land.

It’s often suggested that local authorities can support groups by making sites available – through planning, asset transfer, or sale – but this is easier said than done. Public land is under pressure, with uses from across housing, health and education competing for available sites.

In London, with land scarce and values high, these issues seem particularly daunting, but built examples of community-led developments across the capital demonstrate the possibilities. On 24 April, Future of London brought cross-sector delegates together to learn from what has been working. Kindly hosted by Leathermarket CBS, the event included a tour of an award-winning community-led development, Marklake Court.

27 new community-led homes at Marklake Court, an award winning scheme in Southwark. Photo by Kilian O’Sullivan, courtesy of Leathermarket CBS
27 new community-led homes at Marklake Court, an award winning scheme in Southwark. Photo by Kilian O’Sullivan, courtesy of Leathermarket CBS.

Planning for CLH

Planning is a key means by which local authorities can signal their commitment to bringing forward community-led development. A coherent suite of policy documents for community-led housing can provide a framework for transparent and consistent decision making, benefiting officers and groups alike.

Despite the recent increase in policy development and delivery, planning for CLH is an evolving area and understanding around the purpose and mechanics is still patchy. To fill the knowledge gap, and with endorsement from both RTPI and TCPA, Rural Housing Solutions’ Jo Lavis has produced a Guide to CLH for planners working in urban and rural areas of England. She shared key points covering:

  • Policy routes for CLH
    • CLH as a development process, threaded through generic policies, or
    • CLH as a form of development, stitched into Self and Custom Build Policy
    • Site specific policies
  • CLH as a route to deliver affordable housing and viability considerations
  • CLH and Development Management
  • CLH and Neighbourhood Plans

Jo was clear that the relationship between planning and CLH is mutually supportive: just as planning is important for CLH, CLH is a vehicle by which planners can deliver on the social, environmental and economic expectations of the NPPF.

See below for a video of her talk. Jo’s guide will be available in June and will be available through the Community Led Homes website.

Small Sites, Small Builders

Community-led schemes are best placed to succeed where they can support the wider strategic goals of the public sector. We know that we will not build the homes we need in the UK on large sites alone: unlocking small sites for development is a vital, but hard to achieve part of the mix[1].

In London, the GLA’s Small Sites Small Builders programme has been set up to encourage SME developers through a framework which also removes barriers for community-led groups. Justin Carr, Senior Manager, Public Land at the GLA, described a competitive disposal process, designed to be less onerous for bidders than procurement but offering landowners greater certainty than auction.

The programme offer a mid-way between the common disposal pathways of auction and procurement, removing barriers for small developers and community-led groups.

A streamlined, two-stage disposal process is intended to address issues around access to up-front capital and planning insecurity. The pilot programme made 10 TfL sites available for bids through the GLA’s Portal, set up to support the programme. Use of covenants reserved two sites for affordable development, and two for CLH.

The GLA funded due diligence and to provide as much information up-front as possible, minimising risk. Bids were assessed on their financial offer and deliverability, with proposals limited to 15 pages or fewer.

The project was a success, generating 130+ bids from 80+ different sources. The quality of bids exceeded expectations and six sites are now in contract.

London CLT was one of the successful bidders, taking on sites at Cable Street in Tower Hamlets and Christchurch Road in Lambeth. The sites will deliver some 75 new homes, all of which will be 100% genuinely and permanently affordable[2].

The programme’s contracts are standardised and freely available for use via the GLA’s website. Ahead of the programme roll out with boroughs, LB Croydon have put their first small site out for bids via the Portal. Their ambition is for community-led homes on the site, they’re supporting local groups through workshops and intend to offer design and logistical support via Brick by Brick.

Less than best consideration

With London’s land values at their current heights, it seems inevitable that disposals to community-led groups will involve some kind of discount on the price of the land, in recognition of the non-financial value schemes offer authorities.

This is widely viewed as difficult ground for public landowners to navigate. Disposals must consider “best value”, with “value” generally interpreted as financial.

But, as public interest practitioner Stephen Hill, Director of C02 Future planners, made clear: while generating income from land sales is a valid political choice, it is not a legislative obligation. In fact, there is ample legislation to support disposal in recognition of non-financial value, if policies are aligned.

The video of Stephen’s talk is available below, with a Future of London Spotlight on the issue forthcoming.

Community-led refurbishment

Refurbishing existing buildings poses few land challenges and offers reduced complexity in terms of planning, typically taking less time than building new. It provides an entry-level opportunity for groups to learn the ropes and build confidence through training and volunteering opportunities. For authorities, such approaches could play a vital role in providing homes and reactivating high streets.

“Stakeholder alignment is (almost) everything in regeneration.  If managed right, and I don’t underestimate the challenge, CLH can bring benefits to all in that it should create mutual alignment, commonality of interests and language, and clarity of purpose between relative strangers in the development process.”

Oliver Maury, Partner at Montagu Evans

The case for community-led refurbishment is made clearly through high-profile examples such as Granby 4 Streets and Homebaked. Jon Fitzmaurice OBE, Director of Self Help Housing, set out the benefits through three London examples. Case studies for these can be found on the Self Help Housing website and synopses are provided below.

“Bonnington Square” by Ewan Munro is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Bonnington Square

A large number of homes in Vauxhall would have faced demolition but for the formation of a housing co-op who took over management of the properties from the Inner London Education Authority. The co-op did up the houses, transformed the area and even opened a community café. Today, the square is a much sought-after place to live.

Phoenix Community Housing Co-operative

Phoenix was established in 1980 to provide short-term accommodation in shared supportive communities to single people on low incomes in housing need. Phoenix operates across Tower Hamlets and Hackney with more than 250 members living in short life and co-op owned properties. Phoenix works in partnership with Poplar HARCA and Gateway Community HA in order to provide affordable rental accommodation to members.

Mace Housing Co-operative

Graduate students from UCL set up Mace in 1974 as a self-help housing association for creative individuals and homeless people.  It concentrated on short-life housing, provided initially by the Greater London Council, as this was the quickest way to get its members housed. The houses were allocated to members who renovated them at their own expense in exchange for a peppercorn rent.

Today, Mace manages around 300 properties, most of them leased from housing associations and local authorities. It aims to secure leases of at least three years from property owners.

Residents at Mace Housing coop, courtesy of Jon Fitzmaurice.

The afternoon concluded with a tour of Marklake Court, where a partnership between LB Southwark and resident-led Leathermarket CBS built 27 new homes at social rent. A case study of the scheme is available here and you can read the write-up of the partnership’s presentation at a previous event here.

This seminar was part of Future of London’s Foundations for Community-Led Housing project: a major programme of interactive events and action learning helping CLH groups and delivery partners to work effectively together.

Find out how to get involved on our project page.

[1] https://www.lgiu.org.uk/report/small-is-beautiful-delivering-more-homes-on-small-sites/

[2] http://custombuildstrategy.co.uk/news-article/london-clt-to-deliver-affordable-homes-across-tfl-owned-sites/

[1] http://www.communitylandtrusts.org.uk/article/2019/5/17/more-councils-than-ever-before-back-community-led-housing-development