If there’s one thing I know about Community Land Trusts now it is that they are made up of people who have got off their backsides and done something. If you put aside your prejudices, that’s pretty much the model of the entrepreneur property developer, really.
Something very interesting is going to happen to the housing industry over the next five years and I’ve got a feeling that people who wouldn’t be seen dead together might make productive bedfellows in the new Big Society face of things.
My adventure started off at a community development meeting I went to in Chelmsford, where a group of people engaged in helping local people take action and find a voice, were sharing their hopes and fears, in the light of the new coalition government. That’s where I first found out what a Community Land Trust was. It is also where a local government worker said as we were discussing the cuts, ‘You’re private sector, you’ll be ok.’ Yesterday the adventure continued at the Community Land Trusts 2010 conference in Savoy Place, London, (as a guest of Newstart Magazine)where another group of people engaged in helping local people take action and find a voice were launching a new CLT Network, a national body to facilitate and enable their work, to be hosted by the National Housing Federation.
A Community Land Trust is a corporate body set up by local people, with the objective of acquiring and managing assets for the benefit of the community, in perpetuity. They hare been around in the US for years, and here too in organisations such as Almshouse Trusts. Using a shared equity model, it is theoretically possible for CLTs to provide affordable housing. Real schemes have been particularly successful in rural areas where local house prices can be as much as 20 time local income levels, thereby pricing local people out of the housing market.
The reasons CLTs are not having huge success all over the country developing affordable housing are threefold:
- They can’t get people to give them land (especially Local Authorities, who through a mixture of regulation and attitudes can’t realise the benefit);
- They can’t get planning permission, particularly in rural areas whre there is a huge need for affordable housing; and
- They can’t get funding (and this is worse now for them as it is for most of us).
These three problems add up to a huge headache and years of wrangling with bureaucracy, with only the most tenacious (or lucky) getting projects built.
Things are changing however, and the conference yesterday was buzzing with talk of CLTs finally being able to overcome their difficulties and emerge into the mainstream, in the way that Housing Associations did over thirty years ago.
Headline speaker at the CLT conference yesterday was Grant Shapps, Housing Minister. Shapps is part of the team putting together the Decentralisation and Localism Bill which will be published at the end of the year. The bill is expected to make huge changes in the way Local Authorities operate, and Shapps hinted in his speech that he’d like to make it easier for land to be made available for community projects.
In the afternoon panel discussion, Kate Brathewaite (Carnegie Trust) and Stephen Hill (C20 Futureplanners) talked about Local Authorities having a need for CLTs to help fill a vacuum in housing provision, or the provision of other facilities and services. This might also assist in the availability of land.
Getting Planning Permission
The process of achieving planning consent for affordable housing (often through ‘exception sites’) is fraught with challenges for RSLs. When we do it, there has to be a careful step-by-step approach with all stakeholders on board.
Grant Shapps announced yesterday that the government will enable the establishment of Local Housing Trusts, and that these trusts, if they get 90% support from the local community will be able to ‘Grant themselves Planning Permission’. Blimey.
If that did happen in any meaningful, practicable way, then CLTs would have real power to deliver housing, if they could get funding.
Getting the Money
The only issue Grant Shapps wouldn’t make a commitment on was funding, and I read and heard a great deal yesterday about difficulties making the first step in access to funding. So who’s going to help with this final hurdle?
As anyone in the conference audience could tell you, whilst their motivations might be centred on community benefit, property developers and investors are motivated largely (but not exclusively) by money. In the last few years they have had to be particularly creative in how they make it.
In pursuit of profit during a recession, developers move from areas of low demand to areas of higher demand. Over the last few years we’ve seen them move from open market housing into residential care, for example. Not all developers are short of funding even now, and if they have it they are just finding more effective ways of using it.
So if Community Land Trusts, who will, all being well, have the planning and land opportunities, and developers, some of whom have the financing opportunities, can overlook the fact that they have different motives and understand how to meet them both, wouldn’t there be a chance to achieve more?
With legislative support for planning and land availability, do you think there is an opportunity for CLTs to have the sort of clout that they can talk to and work with housebuilders and developers about joint ventures, if they knew how to talk to them?
Could we even forsee (as Michael Kohn of Slider Studio suggested to me in the break) a situation where some CLTs negotiate their facilities and housing with RSLs and volume housebuilders on a larger scale?
I think Community Land Trusts should consider talking to the construction industry. With the right attitude, the new planning landscape might facilitate some mutually beneficial relationships.