Robert Owen’s legacy of good housing

Allan Shepherd traces the lineage of Robert Owen's ideas right through to today’s community-led housing movement

See this page in: Cymraeg

May marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of co-operative housing pioneer Robert Owen. Born in Newtown, Powys he made his way up from apprentice, via a circuitous working tour of England and Scotland, to mill owner and finally revered Utopian thinker – what we might call now a global influencer. The gift of Robert Owen was to be in possession of wealth and humanity.

He created in New Lanark Mills one of the most advanced social programmes for housing and education of its day, believing that a person’s environment had an impact on the formation of character. As Chris Coates suggests in his energetic history of community housing Utopia Britannica, this led him to propose ‘the foundation of infant and other schools, to form the new character in the rising population’.

The rising population would very much still be employed in his factories, but it was a model of paternalistic advancement that at least offered some resistance to the worst excesses of the violent dehumanising onslaught that was the industrial revolution. His work appealed to a large number of what became known as Owenite followers. They took what they learnt from Owen and moulded his thinking into their own schemes.

Some of these schemes had more success than others, but it is possible to trace the lineage of ideas right through to today’s community led housing movement. Many of us who have lived in community led housing projects have felt the same Owenite tension and excitement when deciding our own housing destiny as a group, not as individuals in a market economy, or as state reliant actors, subject to the politics of the day. History is circular not linear. We are still up against the same forces that existed 250 years ago. Rogue landlords. Rampant capitalism. Bad housing.

It is up to the community led housing movement to offer some answers. In England there has been a flourishing in recent years because grants from central government have been distributed to community groups. This is the only way most schemes can create affordable housing. These grants are not enough on their own and the Owenite schemes of today (without the paternalism!) are those which harness the wealth, imagination and skills of the wider community to deliver projects.

Schemes like LILAC in Leeds, where each resident puts in 35% of their income towards a joint mortgage; Chapeltown Cohousing (also in Leeds), which uses a joint ownership and loan stock model; Yorspace in York, which has developed a dual community land trust/housing coop structure to bring in community share investment; and Student Co-op Homes, which is doing something similar but on a national level.

In Wales we have some distance to travel before we harness the same levels energy and momentum from what is after all in its roots a Welsh legacy. But it is there in smaller housing co-ops like Dragons Housing Co-operative close to Owen’s birth town in Powys, Brithdir Mawr in Pembrokeshire, now also a Community Benefit Society and Golem Housing Co-operative in Swansea. And in emerging community groups we are supporting across Wales – in Bron Llys, Aberdyfi, the Gower, Pembrokeshire, Cardiff, the Llyn, all of which want to create bigger schemes that hope to transform their communities and provide the affordable housing they need.

Robert Owen never quite managed to export his own housing success story outside of the factory environment, despite several attempts. His greatest failure was New Harmony, a scheme he created in Pennsylvania. The same is true of other Owenite schemes, which met many potholes on the road paved with good intentions. But even when communal aspects of these projects didn’t stand the test of time they often left behind them a legacy of good housing, much of which is still being enjoyed by people today. Or the projects lived on in other ways, in lessons learnt or lives changed. As a former colleague of mine at the Centre for Alternative Technology, another Owenite community that lasted forty years, was often heard to say, ‘failure is the compost of success’. Sometimes we will fail but in failure we will always learn. And whatever grows next will live in richer soil. If you are a gardener you will appreciate my call to double dig that thinking in to everything we do. Penblwydd hapus Robert Owen!

The Communities Creating Homes team will be marking the anniversary of Robert Owen’s birth with a special network event on May 20th, exploring the legacy and looking at the projects that are making waves today. Book via Eventbrite

Join with us in celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Robert Owen's birth

14 May 2021 marks the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Owen. Owen is widely acknowledged as the father of co-operation, and the Wales Co-operative Centre is running activities to mark the event.