Mutual brings affordable housing to countryside

Posted on October 2, 2011 · Posted in Co-operative News

Two attractive new homes were completed over the summer in the small Shropshire market town of Bishops Castle. This is significant in a town that is so highly regarded by tourists that many return later in life to retire in the beautiful countryside on the border of England and Wales. The result of the influx of elderly retirees is that local young people – many needed as labour for the county’s farms – cannot afford to buy or rent their own homes.

A survey conducted by the Bishops Castle Community Land Trust (BCCLT) found that many young adults are forced by financial circumstances to continue to live with their parents long after either offspring or parents would prefer. It was clear that a radical solution was required – the type of solution offered by a community land trust.

Often the problem in beautiful rural areas is in finding land for new housing development. Here Bishops Castle had an opportunity. Small parcels of land in the town centre had attracted rubbish dumping and were not large enough for a traditional style of home building. They required an unconventional design that made use of the oddly shaped land, but also the support of people in the construction sector willing to work on a project that did not have any scale economic benefits.

Such an arrangement was made possible because the owner of the land was a local architectural firm looking for additional work in hard times – the land was sold at £6,250 per plot, on condition that the architects’ firm obtained the design contract. The result is handsome looking new homes that community land trust tenants moved into in July.

BCCLT was project managed by Jonathan Brown, who was the co-ordinator of the Welsh CLT promotional agency Land for People, until the scheme was wound-up when the Welsh Assembly Government pulled its funding last year. Jonathan says that a key part of the success of BCCLT has been the active support of the town council. As well as providing practical help and commissioning the local housing survey, the council is a member of the CLT – along with over 200 local residents. Between them members of the CLT – structured as an industrial and provident society – have invested £16,000 in the scheme.

The scheme has been made possible by an initial £22,350 donation from the Co-op Group’s Co-operative Fund. Subsequently the Government’s Homes & Communities Agency provided a grant of £5,000, with Shropshire Council providing £30,000. Some £22,000 was obtained through local fund-raising, while the balance was obtained as a mortgage on commercial terms from the Ecology Building Society.

The trust specified clear criteria for who could rent the homes, with potential tenants required to demonstrate that they could not otherwise afford their own homes, yet that they could pay the rent and that they had a strong local connection. “The first time around we had eight applicants, but one of the successful applicants then dropped out,” says Brown. “We then had another round, with six applicants.”

William Cooper is one of the new tenants. He says: “I was living in a house in the same street. It was big and too expensive. This has been a god send really, because in this rural area there’s not many smaller affordable properties like this.”

Cooper is a volunteer with a conservation charity, Caring for God’s Acre, which supports wildlife in church graveyards, and the home allocation has allowed him to continue his involvement in the project. “It means I am able to stay in the area,” he says. “I am from the area and my family has been living here for 18 years.”

To ensure that the properties are professionally managed, a local firm of estate agents – working on a reduced rate of commission – is collecting the rents and managing the properties.

BCCLT has ambitious future plans and is already inspiring comparable initiatives elsewhere. A benevolent landowner in Herefordshire wants to donate land at a heavily discounted price if it is held in trust by a CLT. Another potential donation to a CLT has been offered by a group of properties owners in Cheshire. And the Isle of Man Government is seeking advice on the creation of an eco-village with community ownership, supported financially by wind turbine electricity production. In Bishops Castle, the next scheme – operated in partnership with the town council – is likely to be micro-enterprise units to promote new businesses and job creation, using land leased from the county council.

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A Community Land Trust owns land and property for the benefit of its locality, or community. It is a type of mutual organisation, which in the UK often uses the Industrial and Provident Society legal structure. CLTs are commonly used in America and have been used by residents in remote Scottish islands to take collective ownership of their islands. Objectives may include ending historic feudal land ownership systems, creating affordable housing for local people who have been priced out of the market, retention of local agricultural production and economic development. CLTs can be chosen as a mechanism to separate the economics of land ownership from the day-to-day management of how it is used and to retain land in the ownership of the local community. There are opportunities for much wider use of the CLT model through the Government’s move to encourage local authorities to dispose of surplus land and buildings to local communities.