How to create community assets

 

Since 1992, several hundred homes in a corner of west London have been the standard-bearers of a new form of community control. Previously owned by Westminster Council, they were transferred to a resident-controlled housing association, Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, under the 1988 ‘tenants’ choice’ legislation.

Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH) arose from a local campaign against the council’s plans to sell the estate to private developers, moving out vulnerable residents and tenants who had lived in the area for many years. At a time when many housing associations were getting bigger, more commercially minded and more distant from their ‘customers’, WECH was working to put community ownership into practice.

WECH is significant because we have now had two decades to see how and whether such a model can work. It owns more than 600 homes, with occupants ranging from leaseholders to homeless families.

The figures are fascinating. A total of 94 per cent of residents feel secure in terms of their tenancy, compared with 62 per cent under their previous landlord; 91 per cent say they are proud of their homes, compared with 64 per cent under the previous landlord; and 90 per cent feel at home in the area.

There’s more: 84 per cent feel the landlord helps them to meet their neighbours; 79 per cent say there is a good community life in the area; and 85 per cent say the landlord plays an important role in fostering community and voluntary activities.[1]

WECH is professionally run, but not distant: people say they can chat to the chief executive in the street. It takes family life seriously: tenants’ grown-up children are given priority for rehousing, building what it calls ‘co-located family networks’. In a cosmopolitan area with a high turnover of population such networks strengthen community cohesion. WECH found that 12 per cent of its tenants had relatives within the community, in networks of between two and four houses.

Starting with the people and their priorities has led to some unusual and pioneering decisions. One WECH tenancy has been offered to a local policeman; in return he plays an active role in the community and responds to requests for help and information.

WECH’s residents feel they will be listened to and can influence what their landlord does. And it is no surprise that WECH prioritises the things that make the most difference to residents’ day-to-day lives: keeping rents as low as possible and getting repairs done swiftly.

WECH believes community ownership helps people to feel healthier and happier because it gives them more control over their lives and environment. It gets the basics right, providing affordable and secure homes in one of London’s most deprived areas. Compared with expensive and intrusive attempts to create ‘mixed communities’ explored elsewhere, it appears both more human and more effective.[2]

The example of WECH is important because the material conditions of people living in social housing are going to get worse before they get better. More than one fifth of British workers are low-paid and the proportion is higher than in comparable economies. Nearly 10,000 more working families every month require housing benefit to help pay their rent. The Trussell Trust, which provides food banks helping people in crisis, fed twice the number of people in 2011/12 as it did the previous year.

The route to a more productive, dynamic and sustainable economy in the UK begins when people can live lives that fulfil their potential and sustain their wellbeing. That will not happen when many are unable to contribute fully to the public good.

Our new report for the think tank ResPublica (embedded above) is called Responsible recovery: A social contract for local growth. The title takes the current political debates about fairness and places them in the context of real people’s lives, arguing that reciprocity and contribution are at the heart of any sustainable recovery, and that government policy and local practice need to enable all to contribute to the best of their resources and abilities.

For that to happen, policies need to be people-centred, locally accountable and locally responsive. The report takes the ‘sustainable livelihoods’ model that has been tried and tested in the context of international development, and picks up on work by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty to apply it in the UK. It views the journey out of poverty as a shift from surviving to coping, from coping to adapting to change, and from adapting to accumulating.

The assets people need to accumulate to escape poverty are not just material. They include social assets such as family, friends and neighbours; human assets such as practical skills; and public assets such as local services, infrastructure and community organisations.

Undermine one set of assets through policies such as the bedroom tax, which destabilises community life and penalises those on the lowest incomes, or through funding cuts to local voluntary organisations, and it becomes harder to build the others. The loss of affordable childcare, for example, can make all the difference between a job being worthwhile and becoming a poverty trap.

The report proposes three interrelated approaches designed to build and sustain individual and community assets in order to enable people to contribute fully to society.

Secure and affordable housing is the first building block. By developing intelligently, with a view to long-term community sustainability rather than short-term completion targets, housing providers can lay the foundations for well-functioning communities, avoiding the numbers-driven errors that plagued the postwar council estates and many housing association estates of the 1980s.

Second, the public services that support poorer communities need to be opened up to them, providing job and training opportunities for those who are on the edges of the labour market. The Fresh Horizons social enterprise in Huddersfield shows how local people with limited experience and qualifications can provide locally sensitive and accountable services such as home repairs, childcare and youth work, and managing community facilities. In doing so they bring income into the community and provide positive role models for friends and neighbours.

Third, government needs to localise employment support and the Work Programme so that it is sensitive to local labour market conditions and trusted by local people. Current policies make little distinction between looking for a job in Surrey and trying to find work in Sunderland. Local accountability and conditionality must be coupled with an approach that encourages all to contribute to their communities, valuing the time spent volunteering, not just the time spent filling out job application forms.

The paper puts forward a raft of recommendations to help put these approaches into practice. These include extending participatory budgeting schemes; ‘community deals’ devolving services to locally accountable organisations; selecting housing providers on the basis of their long term investment in communities; and using procurement and contracting to create local social and economic value.

None of these proposals are magic bullets. But all involve a shift of mindset that values and supports people living in our poorest communities and views them as equals.

 


[1] Rosenberg, J. (2012). Social housing, community empowerment and well-being: part two – measuring the benefits of empowerment through community ownership. Housing, Care and Support, 15:1, pp.24 -33.

[2] DCLG (2009). Evaluation of the Mixed Communities Initiative Demonstration Projects: Initial report: baseline and early process issues. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919132719/http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1185667.pdf