Middlemarch Podcast – Episode 13

Appledore is a coastal village in North Devon, nestled on the side of the double estuary of the Taw and the Torridge and typical of the South West in having a high level of second homes and few opportunities for the younger generation to find somewhere to stay locally. In the latest edition of our podcast series, Colin hears about the CLT scheme that provided nine homes in Appledore from two different perspectives. He is in conversation with both Peter Reveley, Secretary of the Appledore Community Land Trust and Karl Hine, Head of Community Housing at the Aster Group who built the homes in partnership with the CLT. These conversations were originally prompted by research being undertaken for the Community Land Trust Network and both Peter and Karl are directly quoted in the State of The Community Land Trust Sector 2023 report (link:  State-of-the-Sector-2023-PRESS-1.pdf (communitylandtrusts.org.uk)) which was launched by the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, in Parliament this March. The report features Appledore as a case study (page 15), so you can read about it there or listen to a much fuller version in our podcast.

Listen to “The Middlemarch Podcast: In Conversation With…….” on Spreaker.

Will there be another round of the Community Housing Fund?

“Will there be another round of the Community Housing Fund?” we wrote at the start of an article on our website almost exactly a year ago. We suggested that Community Land Trusts might want to write to their MP to seek their support for the Community Housing Fund and ask them to write to the Minister to seek its renewal. Many of you did, often pointing to how the fund either helped your own project or could be used by others to help a project similar to your own. Some of you had some very positive responses from your MP and assurances that they would speak to the relevant Minister. Our article last spring stated:

“The Community Housing Fund has been a great boost to schemes up and down the country, but it has had something of a chequered history, and, at the time of writing, it has an uncertain future.”

Sadly, that’s still an accurate statement today. The very schemes that the Government would like the planning system to support or encourage won’t be able to come forward without some funding to help fledgling groups through the feasibility stage and to help ‘de-risk’ difficult sites. In a letter at the tail end of 2021 from Middlemarch to all MPs in Devon, Dorset and Somerset, we said:

 “At the early stages any newly formed group will find it difficult to meet the preliminary costs of securing a site and undertaking all the necessary assessments in order to seek planning permission. A Community Led group may have the enthusiasm and willingness to put in volunteer time ‘at risk’ but, unlike a Housing Association or a volume builder, it won’t have the reserves or other financial capacity to underwrite that commitment.”

Unfortunately, since that last article a year ago, there has been the greatest level of churn in Government in living memory – including Michael Gove being appointed, sacked and then re-appointed to his current role in the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Last month the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, had another reshuffle and we now have another new housing minister, Rachel Maclean, the MP for Redditch.

So, we feel the time is right to go back to our MPs. If you’ve written to yours and you had a positive response, then perhaps a short letter or email to remind them of their stated support and asking them to contact the new Housing Minister? If you previously didn’t have a positive response when you contacted your MP, why not try again?

There has been some good news since last year: the Government has recently demonstrated renewed support for community led housing development with some very positive signals in their proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in a consultation that ended at the start of this month.

When writing to your MP, by all means endorse the support the Government is showing through the proposed changes to the NPPF but point out that groups need practical support too. They need a new CHF.

The Bridge, CoHousing Project

At the end of last year, just before Christmas, a proposed new cohousing scheme submitted their planning application, a first for Somerset and a first for Middlemarch too!

Bridge Farm (Drayton) CoHousing Ltd was established three years ago (late 2019) and propose to create twelve homes with shared facilities, known as a ‘Common  House’, for a community of up to 25 people on a redundant farm complex. They intend to peg two thirds of the dwellings at no more than 80% of market value to ensure better affordability for residents/members and a real mix of people from different backgrounds.

In late 2021, grant funding was provided by South Somerset District Council from within its allocation of ‘Community Housing Fund’ (previously awarded to it by central Government) for the feasibility study. The primary purpose of such grants is to ‘de-risk’ the project by undertaking initial feasibility work prior to a planning application and the cohousers used the money to appoint various surveyors and other experts, including (after a competitive process in February 2022) their architects, Barefoot.

In the UK CoHousing communities are still small in number and usually small in scale. Of the three main types of Community Led Housing (the others being Community Land Trust and Co-Operative) they are the least in terms of completed schemes and probably the least understood. 

Cohousing has been defined as “… intentional communities run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained home as well as shared community space and facilities. Cohousing can be a great way to live balancing privacy and highly sociable neighbourhood life. Originating in Denmark in the 1960s the movement has grown across Scandinavia, Germany and the United States. Cohousing is attracting a lot of interest across the country….” (UK Cohousing Network)

Members of the cohousing group at a community consultation event

What distinguishes a CoHousing scheme from other forms of collective or co-operative living is the extent of shared facilities, including a core element that has become known as ‘The Common House’.  Through the sharing of some household tasks (most commonly a regular shared meal) while maintaining private living space; designed-in casual or ‘accidental’ interaction (e.g. by collecting post from a single delivery point); a safe environment in which children can grow; and ‘an extended family’ made up of people of diverse ages, interests and backgrounds, CoHousing provides not just a space to live but a rich living experience and a sense of community with in-built resilience.

Artist’s impression of the proposed built form

Credit: Barefoot Architects

The nearest other cohousing community is in Bridport, Dorset, a much larger scheme which is primarily new build and has been developed using the Community Land Trust /Community Benefit Society legal model in partnership with an established Housing Association (Bournemouth Churches). 

Bridge Farm Cohousing have determined to ensure that construction of the common house is an early phase of the development so they have decided to convert the existing farmhouse, building a modest extension to create a room large enough for the whole community to gather and setting aside some of the upstairs rooms as guest bedrooms to reduce the need for ‘spare rooms’ in their individual homes. Early completion of the Common House, the least amount of repurposing on the whole site, will also make it more possible for some members to move into temporary accommodation, such as caravans or trailers, on site prior to the completion of their own homes, should they need to.

Bridge Farm became redundant as a lived-in farm when the last tenancy expired around four years ago, subsequently the buildings have fallen into a further state of disrepair. The plans, created by Barefoot (who also worked on the Bridport CoHousing scheme), make the most of the existing fabric, creating liveable space in a sensitive way that preserves the character of the historic farm setting. There are also two listed cottages immediately to the north and other listed farm buildings to the south of the site, so the proposed designs treat the overall outward appearance very sensitively in order to enhance the setting for these neighbouring properties. As well as the need to be sensitive to the settings of these listed buildings, Bridge Farm has much historical merit of its own. The architectural proposals encompass a highly sensitive approach to the existing built form, using the existing structures/fabric as much as possible and reclaiming other materials for reuse, hence maximising embodied carbon retention.

The detailed heritage report states “Traditional and historic farmsteads are a valuable aspect of the countryside, not only do they represent character and identity, they provide a valuable sense of space and a reminder of the past. They tell the history of the social and economic life in the countryside, demonstrating the use of local resources and skills, which contribute to differing regional vernacular variations in design, style and purpose.”

The farm is currently owned by four brothers who are sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the cohousing group and want to see stewardship of the land pass on to others with high ecological values. The planning application is a ‘hybrid’ seeking full permission for the repurposing of the main farm building complex into the residential scheme at the same time as outline permission for some other outbuildings to be repurposed for workshops and offices at some point in the future, creating a live/work community.

The site is within the catchment of the Somerset Levels and Moors (SLaM) Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site (internationally recognised wetland), one of 27 areas in England and Wales where excessive nutrients entering into the environment through water courses have been identified as posing a threat to a highly sensitive ecological landscape. In this case it is the River Parrett which flows right past the site, then into the Somerset Levels on its way to the Bristol Channel.

For Bridge Farm there is a solution that can be achieved on site, meeting both the planning requirements and the high ecology values of the collective itself. It involves replacing the existing septic tank (which services the original farmhouse) with a package treatment plant and planting 170 trees, in a mixed crop orchard on the adjacent field, which shall absorb the residual phosphates.

There are only a few rural cohousing communities in England repurposing old farm buildings, the nearest to Bridge Farm possibly being the Threshold Centre in Dorset and Trelay in North Cornwall. Another example of cohousers repurposing a redundant farm complex is the scheme in Cumbria which Colin heard about in his conversation with Laura Moss in episode seven of our podcast series, which you can find here.

Middlemarch Podcast – Episode 12

In episode twelve of our Podcast series Colin is in conversation with Jeremy Holton from the Parracombe Community Trust in north Devon. The Trust has opened a new village shop and cafe and has also taken over running the village hall, previously a lodge house for the RAOB. There are also plans to build six sustainable affordable homes within the boundary of Exmoor National Park. Jeremy also adds his thoughts to the growing list of things that our contributors would tackle if made Housing Minister for a day.

The Middlemarch podcast – Episode 10

The latest episode of the Middlemarch podcast is now available. This time Colin is in conversation with Jacqui Wilding who is Chair of the Bronllys Well Being Park Community Land Trust, based in Powys, Wales.  The CLT has very ambitious plans for the site, currently owned by the NHS, of a community hospital. Building on work undertaken by the Prince’s Foundation, they’ve developed feasibility studies for a range of community facilities, not just housing, and gained support from the wider community. “… it’s wonderful to see this initiative beginning to emerge at Bronllys….” said actor Michael Sheen in an endorsement he recorded for the launch of their plan “The Next Ten Years”. Read More …

Listen to “The Middlemarch Podcast: In Conversation With…….” on Spreaker.

The Middlemarch Podcast – Episode 9

In the ninth episode of the series, just released, Colin is in conversation with Claude Hendrickson who works as a Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Adviser at Leeds Community Homes. Download the podcast to hear Claude talk about his experiences as project manager of the Frontline Community Self Build project where, during the 1990’s, a dozen young black men from Chapeltown in north east Leeds built their own homes on a former quarry site offered to them by the City Council. Claude was praised by the MP Richard Bacon in his review of Self and Custom Build and he also talks to Colin about diversity within the community led housing sector. If you’ve missed any previous episodes you can also find these on the podcast page of our website.

Listen to “The Middlemarch Podcast: In Conversation With…….” on Spreaker.

Will there be another round of the Community Housing Fund?

The Community Housing Fund has been a great boost to schemes up and down the country, but it has had something of a chequered history, and, at the time of writing, it has an uncertain future.

“We will support community housing” said the Conservative Party manifesto back in 2019 and since being returned to office the Government has supported community (led) housing in a variety of ways, but for most of England, outside London, the Community Housing Fund (CHF) closed just a year later, in December 2020.

The CHF was first announced in the Spring 2016 budget by the then chancellor. On 16th March 2016 the Rt Hon George Osborne told the House of Commons “We’re going to … support community housing trusts, including £20 million to help young families onto the housing ladder in the South West of England”

In 2016-17, £60m was distributed to 148 councils to support community led housing, largely based on the recorded prevalence of second homes, so most of the housing authorities (mostly District Councils) in the South West benefited, but not all of them. For some, perhaps most, local housing authorities it came as a bit of a shock, since they didn’t need to bid for it, with the first tranche of actual cash being paid over just before Christmas with the expectation that it would be deployed before the end of the financial year! Most rose to the challenge and swiftly put plans into place.

people outside the opening of community owned housing

Following this, the community led housing sector worked with the relevant Government Department (then called the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government or MHCLG) to establish a more structured programme which launched in the summer of 2018. This iteration of the CHF was a huge success. It increased the potential pipeline of homes from 5,810 to over 23,000. It also developed the network of some 25 community led housing hubs covering most of England, the hub for Dorset and Somerset now being hosted by Middlemarch. Over 120 advisers completed accredited training (recognised by the Chartered Institute of Housing), including all of us at Middlemarch.

CLH logo

Over half the local authorities in England now have either policies or dedicated officers (in some cases both!) to support community led housing. While the fund remains open in London (until the end of March 2023), it closed for the rest of England after only 18 months.

However, a further £4m was made available for groups with advanced projects in 2021-22, but with only five months for them to bid and take up any award of grant the scope of that round of funding was inevitably narrower than previously had been the case.

We all expected a revived fund to be announced in the autumn budget last year. All the signs were there. The Government had continued to pledge support for community led housing schemes and acknowledged the added value demonstrated.

“Housing built by community-led groups, including community land trusts and housing co-operatives, can deliver high quality affordable housing that cannot be delivered by the mainstream market. We have supported community-led housebuilding through the Community Housing Fund and we will consider how best to maintain that support going forward.” They said in The Charter for Social Housing Residents, published last year.

The autumn budget came … and went! “… we will always give people the support they need and the tools to build a better life for themselves.” Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons, although he didn’t directly translate that into any specific funding for communities to address their own housing issues. However, he did pledge to “…meet our commitment to invest £10bn in new housing… and unlock 1 million new homes…”

But what about the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) lead by the Rt Hon Michael Gove as Secretary of State? The Kruger report on Levelling Up Our Communities  (commissioned by the Prime Minister) recommended that community led housing “should be recognised as the future of social housing, both in rural and urban areas, and more enthusiastically backed by government.”

Although the Chancellor hadn’t set aside specific funding to revitalise the CHF, couldn’t the Secretary of State set aside such a fund from within his overall DLUHC settlement?

We thought he could. So last November we wrote to every MP where we’ve supported a successful community led housing scheme or where we’re currently supporting a prospective group (in some cases both!) in their constituency. Wherever possible we cited the schemes or potential projects on their patch. Just for good measure we also wrote to all the other MPs with a constituency in Devon, Dorset or Somerset (the three counties we tend to work in most), even if we’re not currently helping any prospective schemes and haven’t in the past. A full list of all these MPs is in the table below.

Tobias EllwoodBournemouth East
Conor BurnsBournemouth West
Ian Liddell-GraingerBridgwater & West Somerset
Mel StrideCentral Devon
Sir Christopher ChopeChristchurch
Simon JuppEast Devon
Ben Bradshaw*Exeter
Michael TomlinsonMid Dorset & North Poole
Anne Marie MorrisNewton Abbot
Selaine SaxbyNorth Devon
Simon HoareNorth Dorset
Dr Liam FoxNorth Somerset
Sir Robert SymsPoole
John GlenSalisbury
David WarburtonSomerton & Frome
Richard DraxSouth Dorset
Sir Gary StreeterSouth West Devon
Sir Geoffrey Clifton BrowneThe Cotswolds
Rebecca PowTaunton Deane
Luke HallThornbury & Yate
Neil ParishTiverton & Honiton
Kevin FosterTorbay
Sir Geoffrey CoxTorridge & West Devon
Anthony MangnallTotnes
James HeappeyWells
Chris LoderWest Dorset
Marcus FyshYeovil
*NB Ben Bradshaw is the only Labour MP listed, all the others are Conservative

We pointed out all the advantages of community led housing schemes and why fledgling groups are at a disadvantage compared with other developers: “At the early stages any newly formed group will find it difficult to meet the preliminary costs of securing a site and undertaking all the necessary assessments in order to seek planning permission. A Community Led group may have the enthusiasm and willingness to put in volunteer time ‘at risk’ but, unlike a Housing Association or a volume builder, it won’t have the reserves or other financial capacity to underwrite that commitment.” we told them.

We also quoted the Kruger report and the Charter for Social Housing Residents as well as the Bacon Review of Self and Custom Build (which recommended that “the Government should reignite the successful Community Housing Fund”) and The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission (which noted in its final report that community led housing groups are “excellent at delivering places that people like and value” and recommended that “the government should continue to support community-led development [including] ongoing funding support for community housing projects, with a sensible long-term commitment, such as for the next five years”).

We asked MPs if they would support the renewal of the CHF and, if so, would they be willing to raise this with the Secretary of State.

Most MPs sent a short, polite but generic acknowledgement. This is no surprise as almost all MPs must get a lot of correspondence and will, quite rightly, want to prioritise urgent casework for individual constituents. Most of them publish their views on certain issues on their website and often direct correspondents there if they think it’s a templated letter as part of a coordinated lobbying campaign that doesn’t merit an individual response. They also, understandably, feel obliged to point correspondents to their own MP when you’re not actually their constituent which, in most cases, of course we aren’t!

So in January we contacted over 50 CLTs to ask if they would be willing to write to their own MP in the hope that direct contact from a group within their constituency might get a more direct response. Across the region, from Appledore to Stow-on-the-Wold, CLTs responded and made contact with their MP, often referring to our earlier contact and often referring to their own schemes and how these could benefit from a renewed CHF (or could have!). In the second table we’ve listed all the CLTs and fledgling groups that we contacted.

AppledoreLyme Regis
Boscombe and PokesdownLyn
Bradford AbbasMarshwood
BradworthyNewton & Noss
BrauntonNorton sub Hamdon
Broad ChalkeParracombe
Burton BradstockQueen Camel
Charlton HorethorneSampford Peverell
Cheriton BishopSixpenny Handley
ChristowSouth Petherton
Colyton and ColyfordSpaxton
Corfe CastleStow on the Wold
Corry ValleySturminster Newton
CreekmoorSymene (Symondsbury)
DorchesterToller Porcorum
Fontmell MagnaUpper Coly Valley
Frome (Faculty)Upper Culm (Hemyock)
Georgeham ParishUpton Pyne
GillinghamWest Somerset
Hartland ParishWilmington
High HamWoolacombe
Langton MatraversYarcombe

To be clear, if your local group is working in partnership with a Housing Association (or if your CLT is one of the few that has become a ‘Registered Provider’ in it’s own right), your proposed scheme can seek subsidy from the Government (through the grants programme administered by Homes England) or, sometimes, from your local housing authority (for example if they need to spend money collected from developers as ‘section 106 contributions’). The CHF doesn’t replace this form of subsidy – but what it does do is help groups get their project to the stage where it is possible to bid for capital subsidy.

There’s been an enthusiastic and very helpful response from some MPs, especially those who have already shown support for a scheme in their constituency. In some cases this came immediately after we contacted them in November, in other cases it came after their local CLT had made contact, but in all cases it is very welcome. At the time of writing we know of five MPs (almost 19%!) who have said that they will contact either the Secretary of State or the Housing Minister.

In the meantime the sector nationally has put together the ‘ask’.

In January the Community Land Trust Network issued a briefing which stated “Based on research by Dr Tom Archer and Catherine Harrington there are an estimated 12,000 homes in the pipeline from over 630 groups. They will need £45 million of pre-development revenue funding and £2.5bn of capital to complete these homes.” It went on to seek £65million over four years,

“We are calling on the Government to renew the Community Housing Fund with:

  • £45 million of revenue grant funding for projects.
  • £8m of revenue grant funding to complete the enabler hubs network.
  • £7.5m of capital grant funding for innovative affordable housing tenures “

One of the key points is the stop/go nature of the CHF. As we all know schemes take years to work through from conception to completion and the sector as a whole needs the surety of knowing that such a fund might be available at the time it is needed. Many of the successful schemes in the West Country have been fortunate to have been at the right stage at the right time. The Affordable Homes we see being delivered for local people this year will have had the right funding available at some point in the past, so renewal of the CHF is about making sure that local communities are in a position to create new homes in future years.

Of course some local housing authorities (but by no means all, in fact not even a majority) are able to help with some early stages funding where they still have such funds allocated within their own budgets. A renewed CHF would level the field and mean the chances of your fledgling group getting financial support when it  most needs it won’t be dependant on whether your local council has an enlightened approach and the funding to back it up.

On the 23rd March this year Rishi Sunak is due to deliver his ‘Spring Statement’ to Parliament. Given the current economic backdrop, some commentators are thinking it could effectively be a fully blown budget. Whether it’s a new budget or just the ‘usual’ seasonal update, let’s hope there’s a revised funding stream for community led housing somewhere in the detail, even if he omits to actually announce it in the House. If not the ability to get community led housing schemes ‘shovel ready’ may rest in the hands of Michael Gove and his willingness to set aside funds from within the DLUHC settlement.