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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.