Building better: Three principles for community-powered housing

November 17, 2021  

We’re building under half of the new homes we need, while millions live in unsuitable and overcrowded accommodation. What if involving communities in planning could succeed where decades of top-down reforms have failed? Pawda Tjoa on how councils can construct change.

The planning system has seen endless tinkering since the Housing and Planning Act of 1919. But rather than solving the housing shortages, a century’s worth of reforms have exacerbated the crisis of under-supply and unaffordability. Today, we’re building only 44% of the new homes we need to, with more people than ever living in unsuitable housing or having no home at all.

New Local’s latest report: Housing Beyond Markets and State argues that to tackle the housing crisis we need to move beyond the state- and market-led approaches that have dominated – and repeatedly failed – in the past. Drawing from the inspirational work of Elinor Ostrom and New Local’s Community Paradigm, the report argues for an alternative approach that is genuinely community-driven.

How do councils help construct this approach? They’ll need to follow these three principles:

1. Enable community-powered decision-making

Our vision for the planning system follows Ostrom’s principle of subsidiarity: that nothing that would be better done locally should ever be done centrally. This means that decisions on new housing and development should always be made at the smallest scale as the first resort – i.e at neighbourhood, or street, level.

Councils have a key role as a facilitator of this small-scale decision making. They can involve communities through techniques like deliberative and participatory democracy and creating the space for constructive negotiations to take place.

The current planning system is rigid, hierarchical, and inherently adversarial – pitting developers, planners and communities against each other. By using a community-powered approach, planners can be less fearful of making unpopular decisions. Residents also have the opportunity to be involved at a deeper level, working through iterations of proposals to find win-win outcomes.

A recent study also found that public investment in community-led housing offers medium-to-high value for money when a long-term view is taken, meaning that each pound invested can be expected to generate much more value in return.

Participants in Southwark’s Community Review Panel

Our research finds plenty of examples where this is already happening. For example, the Community Review Panel in Southwark – one of five such panels in London – gives local residents, employers and employees the chance to shape the development of Old Kent Road. The panel members – selected carefully to ensure demographic representation – review development proposals at confidential, pre-application stage, when there is still a real opportunity to influence their final form.

2. Incentivise co-production with communities

There is some fear that giving communities more say over planning would result not in more housebuilding but less, as evidenced by the negativity often associated with neighbourhood forums and planning.

However, communities are much more likely to support new developments if they have confidence that they will share the benefits. And where local government and local people have much stronger incentives to allow more housing, the housing supply in those countries tends to be much more responsive to local needs.

To incentivise community involvement in planning, Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) need to create suitable frameworks, trusting smaller communities to make decisions that enable more development, while ensuring that their own community benefits from change.

Kalkbriete housing co-up in Zurich

During the construction of Kalkbreite co-op housing in Zurich, for example, decision-making was by systemic, resident-led consensus. Different techniques were used to maintain a sufficient level of participation, including paying group members for the hours they had volunteered, and creating small teams to make key design decisions during construction. Soon after completion, working groups were also set up to maintain the garden, workshop and cafeteria.

3. Build in resilience and recognise complexity

Building a strong and sustainable future requires a recognition of the complex reality of people and places, which is often ignored by the current rigid and over-centralised system. Responding to this complexity requires councils and communities to be given the space to experiment, adapt and work iteratively to respond to changing local needs. A more flexible and community-driven approach would also increase participation in the long run as communities can see their direct positive impact on local housing provision and affordability.

Rejuvinated housing in Granby 4 Streets

For example, Liverpool’s Granby 4 Streets plays a key role in driving the regeneration and affordable housing provision in the local area.

It had a modest beginning, with a group of residents proactively resisted the demolition programme that threatened many buildings. They first experimented with small-scale interventions ranging from guerrilla gardening to holding a neighbourhood market. Their success later led to the establishment of the Community Land Trust which began the incremental process of developing regeneration plans with the council and local partners. The residents continued to build capacity including securing funding that allowed them to enter into negotiations with the council to agree, first the transfer of empty properties into community hands, and later on, the development of community-led housing.  

How do we make it happen?

To allow these principles of community-powered housing to flourish, we’ve issued a set of recommendations to both national and local government, including:

  • LPAs should be given more powers and incentives to meet local housing needs, including the right to tax developers for unused land, and to set their own planning application fees  
  • Councils should use more participatory and deliberative approaches, and equip staff to apply these techniques
  • Individual communities should have the choice to opt-into ‘gentle intensification’ – building more housing in empty neighbourhood land.

A community-powered approach to planning and housing means the creation of a system that gives people a right to positively influence the place where they live. Ultimately, it creates a route for more, and better, housing to be built – the houses, flats, bungalows and maisonettes we so desperately need.

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