People powered homes – and why we need them


Many people ask me what “people powered homes” are.

It started as a by-line for the first community share offer as Leeds Community Homes (LCH) back in 2017, and I’m not sure who coined it, certainly not I. But it captured what we were trying to do and more broadly, the wider idea we were trying to energise and promote.  

What we were trying to do was to create a movement to empower local people to create the homes that they wanted and needed in their communities.

LILAC was a flagship for a new wave of community housing, and it was the first example I was involved with. LCH itself was formed out of the successful experience with this innovative prototype and a desire to spawn many new LILACs, both more quickly and more easily than the original!

I came to LILAC as an experienced affordable housing consultant, fresh from ten years with a major housing association. I had experience developing every kind of affordable home you can imagine. Extra Care, sheltered housing, learning disabilities, Section 106, regeneration, rural schemes, “living over the shop”, general needs; I had done it all.

But working with LILAC came as a completely new experience. Here were a bunch of fairly normal people, marshalled by a mercurial visionary, Paul Chatterton. They had found a site in the middle of Leeds, and were trying to buy it from the council in order to build their own eco-homes on it. They had a small amount of money and a huge amount of enthusiasm.

The council were nervous, to say the least. Who were these people? How could they trust them to do what they said they were going to do? What if it all went horribly wrong and they ended up with a PR disaster?

This was initially why I was drawn into helping the group – as a professional project manager with a track record in Leeds, I was a familiar face to deal with and perhaps, someone to blame if it all went horribly wrong.

The group themselves had some ambitious ideas, some of them wild enough to give me pause for thought. But they were well structured as a group, had good processes for making decisions and delegating; and, finally, they knew enough to listen to proper advice and to trust someone to be an interpreter between their ideas and the wider world of professional development.

“Are we crazy trying to do this?” they asked me at an early meeting.

“Probably,” was my response, “but let’s try it anyway.”

Years later, LILAC is an award-winning, sector-defining success story of a project which succeeded despite many obstacles. But setting aside the funky modular straw construction, and the revolutionary financial model (Mutual Home Ownership), what is the defining difference maker for LILAC?

LILAC was a dream, an idea that ‘normal’ people – not minted grand designers with bottomless budgets – could come together and build their own homes and community, and make it to the designs and principles that they, as a community, decided on.

Did they get everything they originally wanted? No, of course not. We all learned a lot along the way and we didn’t tick every box we wanted to.

The point was, all the way through, that they made the decisions – hard ones, often, about the budgets and what we had to cut to make the scheme work. It was their budget, it was their financial risk.

They are people powered homes.

Almost all the housing in the UK is instigated, procured, and developed, by institutions which have no long-term interest in it. Sometimes it is with the best of intentions, often not.  

We all know the tropes: Our shrinking national pool of ever-more monolithic private developers ringfence the rare caches of developable land, and drip-feed to the market the bland designs that they insist it desires; apartment schemes are poured en masse into management companies whose idea of maintaining an environment is based on shareholder returns.

Our planning system is so overrun with a diet of mass market junk food which flows through the system, barely digested, so that it chokes when it comes across anything remotely challenging…

What of our housing association sector, much of it born from the edgy, radical co-op scene of the 60s and 70s, but now heavily regulated and financially conservative, and hence driven to greater and greater economies of scale so that the small local associations rooted in the community are now the exception; and doing anything remotely risky and different can be difficult and frustrating for those battlers in the sector who are minded to try.

“People Powered Homes”, our thriving, but under nourished, community-led housing sector, is an antidote to all this.

The main principle is that the long-term ownership – the management, the decision-making; is vested in the community themselves – whether that is directly (with coops and cohousing) or more generally (community land trusts).

The next point is that local people, or residents themselves, have a real say; not a token consultation, but a real involvement in the instigation, design and implementation of the housing. This can all be true to a greater or lesser degree, but the principle must be there.

Finally, one of the hurdles to creating People Powered Homes is access to capital. They don’t have to be any more expensive than normal homes, so traditional finance and funding routes can work, (if at a stretch); but a real, difference making tool to creating these homes is through ethical crowd-funding.

This can be either through community shares, or loanstock bonds; but by this route individuals and institutions can directly invest in the future of specific projects – so as well as getting a potential financial return, the community have a very real ownership of the housing being created.

So, this is our passion. We want people to be at the heart of a revolution in housing. We want to empower them to shape what and where we build, and to say how they are managed and maintained. And we want to enable ordinary people to invest in, and effectively own the housing that we create.

And that’s what we mean by People Powered Homes.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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