Could co-operatives help address the housing crisis in Birmingham?

Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative member, Alan Clawley, writes for Bioregion Birmingham.

On 14 September 2013 my wife, Hazel, and I gathered with other members of the Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative, a 48-dwelling estate, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the houses first being occupied. We moved into one of the new homes in 1984 with our two young children and have lived there ever since.

But even though our housing co-op had a proud history to celebrate, it was neither the oldest nor the youngest housing co-op in Small Heath. Holmwood Tenants Co-operative, the oldest, was founded in 1977, followed by the Victoria Tenants Co-operative, which I helped to start as a member of the Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory Group in 1978. By 1988 there were three more, Triangle Co-operative, Bordesley Green Co-operative and Blake Lane Co-operative.

My history of how they were started, developed and supported was published this year. It was written from a personal point of view but included the recollections of the people who started them, some of whom still live in them today.     

Political support for tenant co-ops waned from about 1990. There was no sudden withdrawal of legislation as no specific legal powers had been enacted in the first place; it was merely a case of new policies like ‘Right-to-Buy’ leaving housing co-ops in the backwaters of housing policy. But the bricks and mortar of the 1970s co-ops survived. They were owned and managed by their members with varying degrees of autonomy; their durability and continuing popularity demonstrating the validity of the co-operative model.

The underlying social and economic reasons for the decline in support for co-op housing over the period 1990 to 2010 have instead given rise to the prospect of universal home ownership. At the global level the collapse of the Soviet Union signified the death of state socialism and the eclipse of publicly-owned housing schemes. In 1990 Eric Hobsbaum wrote of the change in attitudes to collectivism thus: "Why should the rich, especially in countries like ours where they now glory in injustice and inequality, bother about anyone except themselves? What political penalties do they need to fear if they allow welfare to erode and the protection of those who need it to atrophy? This is the chief effect of the disappearance of even a very bad socialist region from the globe."

The reaction against big council estates had already begun in the 1970s with an urban renewal programme and its focus on owner-occupiers. In the 1980s Thatcher’s government ploughed large amounts of capital into that programme to ensure a 30-year future for swathes of Edwardian owner-occupied terraces in Small Heath. Council tenants bought the best of the council houses on the interwar estates leaving the hard-to-let ones for the Council to manage with its dwindling budgets.  

But by 2014 neither the aspiration of universal home ownership nor the aim of improving the home of every council dwelling to a minimum standard had been achieved. On the one hand the Decent Homes programme had run out of money, because of government austerity measures, and, on the other, most first-time buyers could not get mortgages because of the credit crunch and the shortage of cheap houses to buy. Both were the result of the banking crash of 2008. The result was ‘generation rent’. At the same time Birmingham City Council announced that it needed 50,000 new dwellings to house its growing population.

The conditions are now right for a revival of interest in collective ownership, not of the Soviet kind, but of the kind demonstrated by the Small Heath housing co-ops, where even the biggest is small enough for members to know each other and manage it in a way they choose.

The enabling legislation is still on the statute book. What is missing is the political will and the provision of new public funding; not necessarily to expand existing housing co-ops, as these are probably big enough already, but to develop new co-ops across Birmingham. This is no more likely to happen on its own than it did in the 1970s when a small group of enthusiastic, idealistic and committed professionals started the process of building not just houses but local self-managed democratic institutions.   

More information about housing co-operatives in England can be found on the Confederation of Co-operative Housing website. The Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services website also holds information about existing schemes in the region.
Alan Clawley

Alan Clawley has worked in community development for most of his life, assisting voluntary and community groups in Birmingham to realise their building projects. He is the author of 'John Madin, Twentieth Century Architect' (2011), 'Batsford’s Birmingham Then and Now' (2013), 'Library Story' (2015) and 'Good for Homes' (2016).



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One Response to “Could co-operatives help address the housing crisis in Birmingham?

  • At this point we must ask ourselves this:

    what is the real reason of such indifference from our political representatives in Birmingham. They happily talk about housing crisis on social media (140 characters) and how they think this or that will be the solution then re-tweet it 10 times creating self-publicity (political party) for themselves.. In addition, if you follow through as i do since the loss of my child, you will soon notice there’ll be no follow through to those shiny phrases, In fact, people in charge will be shuffled around often enough that no one can be bothered to pursue the practice of transparency.
    This creating socially destructive political apathy.
    In my opinion, this project above is brilliant for citizen empowerment and brings simple but working solutions to a massive issue we are facing. Think about the homeless man we lost few weeks ago because of freezing temperatures.

    ‘A Nation’s greatness is measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable members “

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