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
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.