Co-operative housing could be the answer to Britain's troubles

In the face of cuts and a decline in home ownership, co-ops could help people into the market.

Co-op Housing is described as “Britain’s best kept secret”. Between cuts to social housing and a decline in home ownership, could now be the time for Britain to look to co-operative housing?

In Sweden, co-op housing provides more than one fifth of housing. That’s more than the UK private rental market. Starting in 1945, the Swedish government began to subsidise co-operative housing at the same level as other housing types. The tenant movement, forged in struggles against rent rises in the 1920s and 1930s took full advantage of this development. HSB, one of the largest housing co-ops, was founded as part of the tenants movement in 1923. Other organisations, such as the housing co-op Riksbyggen, were founded after 1945. True to much of the Swedish model of public services, the co-ops were price controlled until 1973 and subsidised until 1990, gradually being built up before being exposed to market forces.

By contrast, the UK has a much smaller co-op sector. Often associated with radical and alternative politics, some of these schemes are truly inspirational but need scaling up. Giroscope, a worker co-operative started by radicals in Hull pooling their giro cheques, has an impressive record of providing housing and jobs. Starting from nothing, they bought derelict property, renovated it, and then rented it out. It provides housing to people who are excluded from private renting, and provides opportunities to the long-term unemployed and ex-offenders managing the co-op and renovating the stock. In turn, Canopy and Latch in Leeds have been founded along similar lines, and a website, Self-help housing, started up.

Different  and larger models of co-ops are also now being developed. In East London, a scheme which could house 1,000 people through a Community Land Trust was approved in February this year. It is through a combination of Community Land Trusts, Cohousing schemes, traditional co-ops that Britain could address its housing needs.

Nic Bliss, Chair of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) says that interest in co-operative housing since the start of the recession has been “considerable”. Interest is coming from people who would have been first time buyers a few years ago, and from those seeking co-operative retirement housing.

The credit crunch and subsequent recession have put traditional home ownership out of reach for many people. In particular, young people are going to find it increasingly difficult to afford buying a house. The Halifax discovered just over a year ago that only 5 per cent of 22 – 45 year olds had the finances to save for buying a house, they termed this new class ‘Generation Rent’.  The previous 30 years of prioritising home ownership has been roundly criticised by the Chartered Institute of Housing who said "The Love Affair of owner-occupation is over", the National Housing Federation, whose CEO said: “We have used it [home ownership] as the policy determinant and that's absolutely wrong", and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). The JRF’s research concluded that prioritising on home ownership had resulted in four housing bubbles in 40 years, skyrocketing prices, a rise in social exclusion caused by repossession and arrears, a poor safety net, and insecurity in housing.

What could co-op housing bring to the UK? The Bringing Democracy Home report concludes that the benefits are:

‘a) tenant satisfaction is far higher than any equivalent form of housing

(b) co-ops tend to perform as well as if not better than other housing providers in relation to business criteria

(c) there are considerable social and community benefits in co-operative housing

(d) there are individual benefits for the people involved in co-operative housing.’

Unlike Sweden, the UK is still far behind in providing the type of financial support to develop co-operative housing on a large scale. The Chartered Institute of Housing calculated that home ownership is subsidised by £6bn subsidy through Capital Gains Tax relief. Shared ownership is subsidised by £1.6bn, and housing benefit in private renting was estimated at £7bn. However, that could be about to change.

The Confederation of Co-operative Housing has been working on trying to find ways to generate the elusive finance needed by co-ops. They are currently working with the Homes and Communities Agency to try and raise finance of “between £100m to £250m” for community-led housing projects according to Nic Bliss.

At its best, co-op housing could offer a means to address the housing crisis, tackle unemployment, and balance out the housing market.

 

Housing. Photograph: Getty Images

Samir Jeraj was a Green Party Councillor from 2008-2012. He has an MA in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia and a BA in History with Economics from the University of York. His current focus is writing on issues in private rented housing.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser