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After Banning Letting Fees, Where Next for Housing?

Banning letting fees is going to lift a heavy burden from private tenants. But we’re going to have to be more imaginative and radical to tackle the root causes of our housing crisis.

As many people know, the housing problem isn’t rooted in the bricks and mortar of our homes, but in the land on which it sits. The financialisation of land and housing (being bought and sold for profit), and leaving it to the market to address soaring prices and provide fit for purpose stock have left us with an ever-growing housing need.

We’ll need an ecosystem of approaches to push back. More high quality and fit for purpose social housing and much stronger tenant rights are a couple, but let me introduce another – community led housing (CLH) - that can directly address the financialisation of land.

There is a long tradition of CLH in England and Wales with housing co-operatives being the most well known. The CLH family is made up of a number of approaches including community land trusts (CLTs), cohousing, community self build, development trusts and self-help housing and the movement is gaining traction.

Where regeneration projects and new developments often leave communities feeling powerless, community led housing puts those with the most at stake, local people, in the driver's seat. CLTs can shape their communities through owning land, taking it out of the market and holding it for long-term community benefit. Councils working with them are embracing a new kind of municipalism that emphasises and builds collective and participatory power in the community, complementing the council’s own role as a representative democratic body.

The sector is creating the infrastructure to help more communities do this. There is a network of regional enabling hubs that support groups on the ground and a national hub, Community Led Homes, that co-ordinates and support this network. The Government is co-funding a national movement infrastructure that enables communities to take ownership of land and housing forever. Let that sink in. Imagine what can be done to address social crises like climate breakdown and homelessness locally when communities have the means to shape their villages, towns, boroughs and cities.

This is already happening. Community land trusts are tackling homelessness in places as different as Liverpool, Taunton, and South Petherton, a small rural parish in Devon. They’re providing an antidote to gentrification in Mile End, Bristol and Brighton. They’re rebuilding their own abandoned communities in Middlesbrough, and saving communities from holiday homes across the South West.

In the last ten years, we have gone from 14 CLTs in England and Wales to over 330, with almost 1,000 homes in community ownership. You may have heard of London CLT, Granby 4 Streets or StART who all do fantastic work. CLTs, as we know them today, are an import from the USA. The ownership model was born during the civil rights movements when leaders needed a way to bolster the power of black communities through land ownership.

In the last year or so we have seen a big increase in support for CLH from the Labour Party. Sadiq Khan launched London's Community Housing Fund and the Small Sites, Small Builders programme. John McDonnell has spoken favourably of the model numerous times, Corbyn paid a visit to Granby 4 Streets at last conference and John Healey has lobbied in support of CLTs in the House of Commons. CLTs also have cross-party support from MPs such as Caroline Lucas (Green Party) and Oliver Letwin (Conservative Party).

Many CLTs, especially in urban areas, access land through working with their council so this increase in support from Labour is significant. Councils supporting CLTs makes sense considering that core values of CLTs are community empowerment and collective ownership. Historically, Labour hasn’t always been immediately supportive of community land trusts as the traditional logic of the Party is to increase government ownership. So council housing has been the order of the day, not CLTs and housing co-operatives. But this can miss chances for community empowerment, and for the moment council housing can be lost through the right to buy.

That’s why it’s important we imagine a new kind of municipalism where communities and councils forge meaningful partnerships. This is already happening in cities across England with 1 in 3 councils having policy favourable towards community led housing, but there is still a way to go. Community led homes isn’t going to fix the housing crisis alone, but it’s imperative they are a significant part of the ecosystem of solutions.

Kennedy Walker is Communications and Campaigns Officer at National CLT Network and tweets @kwalkeronline. Please get in contact with him if you want more information on community land trusts and how to get your council on board.