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Allan Shepherd, Powys Cohousing Project Officer: My first six months

Allan talks about his first six months on the job, his personal experience of living in a housing co-op, ‘high-functioning neighbourhoods’ and the benefits of sharing living space with sociability, strength, care and independence in equal measure.

By Ben Bostock · August 5, 2019

See this page in: Cymraeg

Heading towards the six-month point of the Powys Cohousing Project marks a useful point to reflect on what I’ve learnt so far and say a little about what’s going to happen next.

I came into this project after having made a life change of moving out of my own home, joining a housing co-operative and having five years of understanding the various dynamics at play when you immerse your life within a community housing scheme. In our case two houses and between 10 and 14 members depending on the natural fluctuations that seem to be part and parcel of co-op housing.

I live in a shared house, which is probably at the most sociable end of the community housing spectrum. Even more sociable still are those communities who also share wholly their economy and income. We don’t do that. We have fixed rents. We have separate economic lives. We’re independent but social.

Cohousing communities can share income but most don’t. The members go about their normal lives but also want more connection with their neighbours and the benefits of sharing. Some communities have a founding in some sort of ideology but most do not. They are based around practical rather than theoretical instincts. Cohousing combines sociability and privacy. Everyone gets their own living space but share some communal spaces, purpose and identity. Belonging to something bigger is part of it.

At their best, cohousing communities, or as author and architect Charles Durrett describes them ‘high-functioning neighbourhoods’, provide support, care and social opportunity that people can not so easily get living outside of community.

They can also save time, for example by sharing meals (which can mean you only cook once every few weeks). They can save money, for example by sharing tools and washing machines. They can give people a wider family to look out for and be looked out for. I can vouch for this in my housing co-op. I feel support is there for me if I need it. And I love giving support too. Happiness is increased when you feel you can offer someone something.

Cohousing communities can also go wrong. And there are examples on social media forums like the Facebook group, ‘Considering Cohousing’, that describe schemes that have, in the eyes of the contributors, gone wrong. Where the social infrastructure of the group (including decision making processes) has not worked or was not set up with enough thought and practice to begin with, or where a dominating force takes over, or where plans just don’t work out.

My experience of living in a housing co-op these past five years has taught me that as much time as possible should be spent at the beginning in forming the group and growing together as a group. Before looking for a site and planning what buildings you are going to put up. This is backed up by the work of cohousing communities in Denmark, where a participatory process (named after its creator Henry Nielsen) has been developed to help groups find their group identity and move forward with strength towards their goal.

The formation of cohousing projects can be stressful and hard won, if they are won at all, so groups need to have a strong footing to begin with. Many successful projects in the UK have taken years to get off the ground. Community groups have to find the resources to establish, find a site, go through planning (an initial pre-planning application alone can include a widespread community consultation and a thousand pound fee), find architects and possible project managers and developers.

There are groups, such as the Wales Co-operative Centre, that can support with advice and small funds for initial set up consultants fees (for example our Explore grant run in association with the Development Trust Association Wales and delivered as part of our new Communities Creating Homes programme) but these are limited. Just four will be awarded this year. The Wales Co-operative Centre works across the whole of Wales so we have to provide wide cover for everyone rather than in-depth funding for one or two projects. Ultimately it’s up to the community to DIY.

There are ways to raise funds. For example through private donors, trusts and commercial funders (such as Nationwide (applications closed for this year but may reopen next so worth preparing for), community share or Co-operative Loanstock issues (which can provide a deposit for a mortgage for those without capital). There are government grants such as the Innovative Building fund, but plenty of competition from people who are likely to be more established that the average community group.

It is also possible to work with Registered Social Landlords (RSL’s) to create wholly social or mixed-tenure housing projects (such as the Older Women’s Cohousing project in High Barnet) but successful examples are still few and far between. Several cohousing projects in the UK, including LILAC in Leeds and Marmalade Lane in Cambridge, were supported by the local authority, who allocated a site in both cases and in the case of Marmalade Lane paid for an early stage project manager.

We’ve started to have those conversations within Powys County Council’s housing department. Is there a site where we can create a mixed tenure multi-generational cohousing project that can meet the local housing and care needs of Powys County Council and deliver a mix of social, affordable and market value homes? I’m having similar conversations with the carers’ organisation Credu, Dementia Matters and Powys County Councils Ageing Well unit (formed as part of the county’s health and social care strategy).

Apart from a few larger settlements most of Powys can be described as ‘ultra-rural’. It covers one-third of the land mass of Wales and has only 5% of the population. I spend more time than I have ever done behind the wheel of a car. One of the most popular requests I get is from people who want to establish a cohousing farm or very rural cohousing project. This will probably be the most challenging ask because building in what is defined under planning rules as ‘open country’ is for obvious reasons heavily restricted.

There are exceptions to normal planning bars on such developments through One Planet Development rules and affordability exemptions, but the onus is on the community group to get local support, prove local housing need and bring all the pieces together themselves. But there are successful rural community farm projects like Trelay, Cornwall, created out of existing farms and rural renovation projects such as Dol Llys near Llanidloes.

Currently this project only runs for six more months – so how to make the most of my time? I’m establishing a Powys Cohousing Network to bring people interested in cohousing together, developing a ‘Routes to Cohousing pack and workshop, which will be offered in four venues across Powys, touring the county meeting with community groups and carrying on my work within the Council to establish a favourable environment for cohousing. I’m also hoping to contribute to Housing LIN’s increasing body of work on cohousing, a great resource for anyone who wants some in-depth reading.

After six months, the feedback I’m getting from community groups is they want to create houses and have fresh ideas about how to do so, but need more support to allow them to compete with more established developers, who have staff and access to capital most community groups can only dream of. It’s clear Wales needs a strong community housing sector and community groups need more support from Wales to help deliver on housing needs. Cohousing is one part of a much bigger picture and I look forward to finding out what the next six months will bring!

Contact Allan to discuss your cohousing needs

allan.shepherd@wales.coop

The Powys Cohousing project runs alongside the Wales Co-operative Centre’s wider Communities Creating Homes programme, which aims to support new, existing and established co-operative and community-led housing groups across Wales.

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