Communities in the driving seat

Families have come together to come up with their own solution to the problem of unaffordable housing on Gower. Adam Land reports…

See this page in: Cymraeg

We set up Gŵyr Community Land Trust (CLT) in November 2020, to provide affordable and sustainable housing but in the process realised we were building something even more profound.

Recognising we were not the only one unable to afford secure or suitable housing in the areas where we live and work, we came together and formed Gŵyr CLT, a grassroots community-led organisation, to find a solution.  We are initially aiming to build 12 mixed tenure, affordable, zero-carbon homes in the Gower fringe area which will be available for local people who cannot afford market value homes.  Inspired by many community self-builds across the UK, we will take on 50 per cent of the construction process ourselves, with every member able to contribute their skills and drive.

We are not your typical housing professionals.  The eight families in the group are multi-generational, and include young couples, families with children, single-parent households and members with additional needs.  We all live locally, run small businesses, work in the public and third sector and are active members of our local community.  Rather than a hindrance though, we believe this diversity is our strength, after all who is better placed to understand communities’ needs than those in it.

Affordability

House prices in rural areas such as ours have risen sharply in the last two decades and has meant these areas are unaffordable for young people and families.  This has a negative impact on these towns and villages threatening local services and businesses, and forcing local people out.  It sometimes seems like there has been an unstoppable rush to build in the countryside in recent years but in reality the population of the UK has dropped by over two thirds in the last century [1].

One of our members Abbi runs Big Meadow, a community-supported agriculture project providing veg boxes for 80 families on Gower, but like many other small-scale farmers she could never afford to buy a home in the area.  We want to see a countryside which is protected but also vibrant and alive with small scale agriculture, local businesses, and producers.  But these people need somewhere to live.

Community-led

Affordable housing is badly needed across Wales, and Gŵyr CLT has found many local people who are not only willing, but eager to provide this for themselves.  They just need a little support.

The UK has one of the lowest rates of self-build houses [2], and also some of the worst quality new housing in Europe [3].  We don’t think this is a coincidence.  We believe that the best way to ensure sustainability and quality, is to put communities and residents in the driving seat.

Anyone can be involved in the planning, design and building of houses, as has been shown by inspiring projects such as Broadhempston CLT, Hedgehog Co-op and Housing People Building Communities in Liverpool.  In our model, whereby residents are able to acquire ‘sweat equity’ by contributing their time to the build, people without access to capital are able to acquire enough equity for a deposit, opening up home ownership to many more people.  It also allows residents to gain skills and training which will open up many doors, especially important with the current lack of skilled labour in the construction industry, which is driving up construction costs across the country.

In our group we have one family made up of parent-carer Karenza and her autistic adult son Eddie, with the support of the rest of the group, Eddie and Karenza’s contribution is invaluable.  Eddie, with the aid of support workers, sits on our design team and recently researched and presented information on different natural plasters and colourings as well as designing an infographic used at our launch in April 2021.  Our weekly meetings fit around all the demands on the group including caring responsibilities, school runs and work patterns and this flexibility has enabled Karenza to revolutionise our administration, logistics and communications, ensuring we are part of the relevant conversations in Wales.

Big developers will always play a part in delivering housing in Wales, but more diversity in design and delivery will drive innovation and quality.  Can you imagine Bovis Homes getting Karenza and Eddie involved in building their own homes?  Or would they choose to build homes which were zero carbon from construction to disassembly?  (Sorry if you work for Bovis Homes).

Mutual support/CoHousing

We are not just building houses; we are creating a community before a spade has even been put in the ground.  We know this journey is going to be tough at times.  Trying to squeeze in 30 hours a week of work on the build in the rain and mud of a Welsh winter, around full-time jobs and looking after young children is going to be a challenge.  But with a supportive group around you, to take up the slack, look after the kids or just make you a cup of tea, anything is possible.

Just imagine what housing could look like if residents were directly involved in the design and building of their own houses?  It might be just the shift we need!

Community-led housing (CLH) offers huge benefits to residents and local communities [4] but is currently facing tough challenges in the face of a planning and policy landscape which advantages large corporate developers and disadvantages groups without the capital to gamble on whether sites will receive planning permission or not.

We want to work with Welsh Government and other organisations to find solutions and have identified four key areas for support which would enable Community Land Trusts to provide affordable, local-needs, zero-carbon homes across Wales:

  1. Pre-development finance A revolving loan fund to cover pre-development costs such as land surveys, fees, and full planning application would enable us to get to development stage.
  2. Opening up Social Housing Grant to CLTs and community-led housing groups We propose that current Social Housing Grants be open to credible CLTs with a viable business plan and correct support, without a need to partner with existing RSLs.
  3. A close relationship between CLTs and local planning departments The planning system is notoriously hard to navigate. To find a suitable site and deliver quality affordable housing, CLH projects need a close relationship with local planners, which is currently not happening.  We propose that local authorities assign a well-resourced CLH champion, who is allocated to support CLH projects to navigate the council and planning system.
  4. Land – full transparency of publicly owned land Publicly owned land could be utilized to provide affordable community-led housing, but it is unclear what land is currently owned by councils. We propose that Local Authorities offer a transparent way to see all the land which is owned by the council, and give community groups the opportunity to bid for these for community use.

We hope our efforts at Gŵyr CLT will inspire others to form groups and build affordable housing in their own communities.  Welsh Government has estimated we need to build 8,300 additional homes in Wales each year to keep up with the shortfall [5], so whatever happens we are going to be building a lot of new homes.  Let’s make sure that as many of these as possible are designed and built by the community for the community, and we are already feeling the benefits before we’ve even started building them.

Gŵyr CLT has been supported by the Communities Creating Homes programme delivered by Wales Co-operative Centre and DTA Wales working with expert mentors to explore and refine their vision to create community-led housing.  Find out more at wales.coop/homes.

Adam Land is a member of Gŵyr CLT

Gŵyr CLT will be taking part in our #CLHfest21 mixer event on Thursday 21 October.  Find our more and book here to hear more about this and other groups developing Community-Led Housing ideas: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/clhfest21-clh-mixer-rhwydwaith-tai-dan-arweiniad-y-gymuned-tickets-179835190897

[1] Overton, Mark (1996); Agricultural Revolution in England 1500-1800; Cambridge University Press.

[2] Wendy Wilson (2017) Self-build and custom build housing, House of Commons Library

[3] James Somerville, Nigel Craig and Vanessa Ambler (2006) Snagging Within New Homes in the UK: An Analysis Between England and Scotland, Structural Survey. 24. 6-21.

[4] Wales.coop/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/CCLH-Report-Summary-2019.pdf

[5] Housing need and demand: 2018-based (2019.b) Welsh Government