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Bristol’s housing puzzle: self-help and mutual aid

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CITY | EDITION 7: housing, housing roundtable, inequality

Housing will present an unpleasant puzzle for Bristol’s next mayor, whoever they may be. We asked three experts for their slant on tackling it.

When we talk about solving the housing crisis, we seldom talk about people taking control of providing their own home – through self-build, custom-build or housing co-operatives. The housing system has morphed into one of dependency on private landlords, house builders or the state. On the surface it seems our debates are short on creativity and innovation.

Dig deeper though and you’ll find all kinds of interesting projects, including less dependent housing provision. I’m talking about schemes shaped by residents, where people have taken back control.

Back in 1975, Bristol council’s then director of housing published a Green Paper called, ‘A Decent Home!! (A paper to stimulate thought and encourage participation so that policies can be evolved to tackle effectively the Housing problems of this great city).’

Perhaps it is time to encourage input from neighbourhoods across our city and revive a discussion that includes alternative housing solutions instead of focusing on a broken system. It could involve people who are seeking a decent home but can’t afford what’s on offer and have given up on social housing, which has been reduced to a residual service. It might be time to listen to those who have solutions that don’t support traditional mainstream approaches to housing – so have been marginalised.

Why don’t we talk about co-operative housing more? We have a great example here in Bristol that’s creating a sustainable model for converting empty office buildings into affordable homes. The Abolish Empty Office Buildings project proves that, even now, ordinary people can create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors.

Why don’t we talk more about ‘kit housing’ or custom build, which is factory made, using more sustainable materials, cheaper and quicker to put up than bricks-and-mortar housing? There are many companies providing this, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers like Apple Green Homes and the local SNUG homes developed by Ecomotive.

Self-build might not be an option for many, but custom build and co-operative housing could be relevant to a wider audience and provide opportunities to people failed by our current approach.

Imagine if our city could pioneer developing these models further, using public land, property and resources to support individuals and communities. There’s a challenge here for Bristol to make this happen.

Tessa Coombes is a former planning consultant and south Bristol councillor, now studying for a PhD in social policy at Bristol University.

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