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Small developments, big ideas: how Bristol’s community groups took housing into their own hands

A groundbreaking council ‘land disposal’ policy is helping citizen groups in Bristol to develop affordable homes. They can’t hope to solve the housing crisis – but what impact can they have for local communities?

Image of Jon Shepherd, a resident of the Merry Hill community-led housing scheme in Lockleaze (credit: David Griffiths)

Jon Shepherd outside the Merry Hill community-led housing scheme in Lockleaze (credit: David Griffiths)

Future of Cities

Jon Shepherd, who is 52, has lived in Bristol since the mid-1990s. For most of that time, he rented from private landlords. “I’ve paid rent for 30 years – up to £300,000 of my income to somebody else, to pay their mortgage,” he says.

In 2016, motivated by a desire to build his own home and provide greater security and freedom for his family, Jon got involved in a scheme to build homes via an alternative, community-led model.

Bristol Community Land Trust, a non-profit membership organisation, would own and manage the land, removing it from market forces and enabling people to become involved in shaping their own homes.

In February 2022, Jon and his family finally moved into a home – which they own a share of – at a brand-new scheme in Lockleaze, called Merry Hill. While the development has changed from its original vision, Jon says it provides “a really nice feeling of being settled… that lets you plan for the future”.

In early 2020, as construction got underway at Merry Hill, Bristol City Council formally adopted a ‘land disposal’ policy. This is aimed at helping community-led housing projects succeed, by offering them sites on which to build. Three packages of sites are planned for release, with the second having been announced in January 2023.

While other cities – notably Liverpool – are making bold moves around community-led housing, BCLT chief executive Steve Dale says he believes Bristol’s policy was a UK first. But what does it mean for the city? How hard is it to get schemes off the ground? And what difference can community-led homes – which are developed in numbers too small to dent the wider housing crisis – really make?

Setting a blueprint

Community Led Homes, a national umbrella body of organisations, defines community-led housing as being “built or brought back into use by local people”. The community is engaged in a meaningful way throughout the development process. Research suggests community-led homes can deliver a range of benefits, including around health and wellbeing through schemes being designed to increase social interaction and ties between neighbours.

Bristol City Council’s definition says that “schemes that are genuinely community-led will adhere to three common principles”. The first is to community engagement and consent. The second involves the community group taking a “long-term legally binding role in ownership, stewardship or management of the homes”. The final principle is a commitment by the community group to deliver defined benefits to their local area or other group.

Over the decade leading up to the policy being adopted, community-led housing in Bristol advanced via a number of different routes. BCLT, which was founded in 2011 by 150 members who each bought a £1 share, has made the most progress. Long before work began at Merry Hill, the trust developed a blueprint a mile away on the edge of Eastville Park.

Bristol City Council donated the land, by Fishponds Road, to BCLT after assessing that its proposals for 12 affordable homes, to be ‘self-finished’ by residents, offered greater social value than selling it on the open market. The council allocated £300,000 to supporting the pilot project, focused on a site that included a derelict school building and a car park.

The scheme experienced delays – including for a bat survey – and unforeseen costs, meaning its design had to be changed. But development, assisted by local housing association partner United Communities, was finished in late 2016. Residents who undertook self-finishing work earned what’s known as ‘sweat equity’ on the homes, amounting to up to £5,000 extra equity in their home or a discount on the rent.

Homes at Bristol Community Land Trust’s first scheme by Eastville Park on Fishponds Road (credit: David Griffiths)

Martin Horne, an architect who lives at the scheme, remembers prospective residents coming onsite two-thirds of the way through the build, working alongside contractors. “We probably pissed them off a bit because we were here painting the houses, laying the floors, fitting the kitchens,” he recalls.

But, Horne adds, he is very happy with the outcome. “The collective thing is really important for us – I feel really held within this community,” he says.

Money troubles

By the time Horne and his neighbours moved in at Fishponds Road, plans were being developed for BCLT’s next scheme – the steep, sloping and overgrown site off Shaldon Road in Lockleaze now known as Merry Hill. Planning permission for 50 shared ownership and affordable rented homes, housing up to 130 people and backed by a £1m government grant, was agreed in late 2017 despite dozens of objections from locals.

“There was a competition for the site, when the council were trying to win [2015] Green Capital of Europe,” recalls BCLT founder member Keith Cowling. The trust was the only organisation to submit a bid, and bagged the site for £1, with Cowling writing the original brief for its development. “Two big things I put in were, ‘we don’t want to lose all the trees’ and ‘we don’t want cars all over the site’,” he says.

But the scheme, more ambitious than Fishponds Road, encountered its own challenges. Planning officers put paid to Cowling’s ambitions for a car-free development, while architects advised that protecting large numbers of trees would be much too expensive.

BCLT founder member Keith Cowling carrying out self-finish work at Merry Hill, where he will live (credit: David Griffiths)

BCLT, which began as lead developer, then ran into difficulties raising the finance to complete the homes. This meant United Communities – since renamed Brighter Places – moved from playing a supporting role, where it would have owned half the homes built, to a dominant one. The land trust retains the freehold on Merry Hill, but had to lease the entire site to the housing association. 

After being unable to continue as lead developer, BCLT also ended up owing £200,000 in grant money it had already spent to the government’s development agency Homes England. The debt was, after negotiations, parked – with conditions attached – “in the ground” at the Fishponds Road site.

Despite the difficulties – plus other compromises such as plans for timber cladding being scrapped post-Grenfell, and finishing materials being switched to cut costs – Merry Hill has retained much of its intended character, Cowling says.

Like Fishponds Road, the houses are being self-finished with support from the Ecomotive workers’ cooperative, with residents undertaking sweat equity to complete them. People in shared-ownership get a discount on their property, while those in social-rented properties receive vouchers to spend on furniture and fittings, to avoid a cash reward affecting any benefit payments.

At the time of writing the scheme, originally due to be completed in 2021, looks set to be finished in spring 2023. In the time it has taken Merry Hill to get from the drawing board to near-completion, other community-led housing models (see box) have been making progress in Bristol.

‘We want to show developers what’s possible’

Back in 2011, as BCLT was coming together, a group of residents in Lawrence Weston, on Bristol’s northwestern edge, were feeling “tired of being ignored by decision-makers”, remembers Mark Pepper. In 2012, 60 of them formed Ambition Lawrence Weston (ALW), a ‘community anchor organisation’ of which Pepper is now the development manager, and set about trying to change things. By the following year, ALW had worked with residents to develop a community plan aimed at identifying local needs and finding resources to make things better.

Housing, which in Lawrence Weston is dominated by council-owned homes, has been a key focus. A 2018 update of the community plan captured concern about growing demand, with residents calling for “decent affordable homes, which are community-led and don’t get snatched up by private investors”.

ALW wants to “show [developers] what can be done”, according to Pepper. In April 2021 the charity obtained permission for a 28-home scheme at Astry Close, on a site where defective council housing previously stood. Brighter Places is again a partner.

Planners recommended the dense development, which was co-designed by the community, be refused on the basis of it being “overcrowded” and breaching policies relating to building on grass verges. “Residents wanted housing in clusters so they could overlook – look after – one another, but [according to planning officers], you can’t do overlooking” says Pepper, who describes the system as a major obstacle.

But councillors on the planning committee disagreed, unanimously approving the scheme, with ward councillors Jo Sergeant and Don Alexander calling it an “extremely important project”.

Astry Close will also benefit from another of ALW’s initiatives, a lettings policy – Bristol’s first – that prioritises local people in housing need for 50% of all new social or affordable rented homes in Lawrence Weston. It’s a step that has recently been replicated back in Lockleaze where, up the road from Merry Hill, more community-led housing is in the pipeline.

A chance to experiment

In January 2021, not long before Astry Close was approved, Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust (LNT), another community anchor organisation, was among the first beneficiaries of Bristol City Council’s community-led housing land disposal policy. This had come into force 11 months earlier.

Paul Smith, who was Bristol’s cabinet member for housing while the land disposal plans were being developed, says the policy was a chance to innovate and experiment. “[It’s a way of] increasing the variety of housing available in Bristol, [and] using housing as a way of genuinely securing long-term income for local communities and community organisations,” he says.

Paul Smith, Bristol’s former cabinet member for housing

Smith adds that the formal embedding of community-led housing in local policy was thanks to the work of local groups and activists. Back in 2016 “lots of people in Bristol [wanted] to make this happen”, he says.

Marvin Rees was elected Bristol mayor in May that year, famously (although not successfully) promising to build 2,000 homes annually in the city by 2020. Also included in a 10-point housing plan within Rees’s manifesto was a pledge to “support community land trusts, local builders, eco homes and self-builds”. 

After Rees became mayor, Bristol City Council released 80 hectares of land towards meeting its housing targets, with 26 locations eventually earmarked as potential community-led housing sites. Many were too small or too awkward to be attractive to commercial developers. “It was about making land available that we thought [community] organisations might have the capacity and interest to take on,” Smith says of the selection process.

The list of sites was gradually whittled down to the 11 on offer during the three rounds of the LDP – with the potential for more to be brought forward as and when organisations are able to take them on. They are disposed of on long leases of up to 250 years, with the council retaining the freehold. Groups bidding for land had to gain planning permission, secure funding and demonstrate that they would “provide homes that rise to the ecological and social challenges we currently face in imaginative ways”.

Creating a ‘virtual estate’

In Lockleaze, the neighbourhood trust secured two adjacent sites on Constable Road, and a third around the corner on Turner Gardens. In June 2022, LNT got permission to develop 19 homes at the Constable sites – a mix of one-, two- and three-bed properties, including wheelchair accessible flats.

An impression of the sites at Constable Road granted to Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust (credit: Barefoot Architects)

The homes only amount to 2% of the 1,000 or so planned for 31 sites in Lockleaze over the next decade. This might seem a small contribution, set against Bristol’s 19,000-household social housing waiting list – and are tiny compared with community led developments in continental Europe.

But advocates argue that size should not be the only measure of success. The plans for the Constable Road development were, like Astry Place, shaped by co-design workshops, which LNT held with residents in 2019 and 2020. 

Between 2017 and 2019 the trust had run a wide-ranging survey to create a community plan. “Lack of housing, lack of affordable housing, and lack of affordable housing for local people were the biggest needs,” recalls Alex Bugden, LNT’s community-led housing project lead. LNT then helped guide residents through the planning process, running sessions to explain key terms and creating space for community members to meet planners and developers and discuss potential sites.

“It was so important to us that there was no tick-box exercise,” says Maria Perrett, a Lockleaze local who is LNT’s ‘community activator’. “There’s loads of helpful information on the council website – but who reads all that? We’re trying to break it down so it relates to you.”

Image of Maria Perrett and Alex Bugden of Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust, which developed the concept of a local lettings policy with residents (credit: Alex Turner)
‘We didn’t want a tick-box exercise’: Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust’s Maria Perrett and Alex Bugden (credit: Alex Turner)

Under Lockleaze’s new local lettings arrangements, all social and affordable rented homes in community-led schemes will be allocated to people in housing need who have a local connection. With around 700 of the households on the waiting list estimated to live in Lockleaze, even a few dozen homes can begin to make a tangible difference to local people.

Martin Fodor, a Green councillor for Bristol’s Redland ward who sits on the council’s communities scrutiny committee, argues that small schemes like Constable Road should be seen as “complementary, not competing with” large-scale housing projects. Within Lockleaze, 50% of new social and affordable rented homes in those bigger schemes will also be subject to the local lettings policy.

“Community-led projects typically set higher standards and quality than private construction, and this embeds long-term thinking in development,” adds Fodor.

Meanwhile Steve Dale, who is the chief executive of both BCLT and Community Led Homes West, a hub that provides support to CLH groups, thinks of multiple small sites as creating a “virtual estate”. Taken as a whole, this adds diversity to the housing options across a city, he says.

‘You need to start small’

The saga of the Merry Hill development shows that even where political will is in place, building that virtual estate is not an easy process – especially for groups reliant on volunteer expertise.

“We [originally] thought it would be more bespoke, that we would be able to build the whole thing… [but] that’s just not the world we live in,” says Jon Shepherd.

When the starting pistol is fired on a scheme, “a blizzard of information comes at you – nobody can really keep up unless you’re full-time, and then some,” adds Keith Cowling. From creating a business plan, to site and financial feasibility assessments, there is a huge amount of work to grapple with. 

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Cowling argues that while community-led housing is about providing alternative models, projects are often still governed by their relation to the market. “The problem we’re trying to solve is the housing market, which is putting homes out of reach, but everything about this process is done by market values,” he says. Examples range from demonstrating ‘net present value’ (a measure of the cost of building and maintaining a project, versus the money it brings in over time) and ‘affordable rent’, which is commonly defined as 80% of market rates.

While Bristol City Council’s requirement that projects set aside 50% of homes for rent to people on the social housing waiting list is generally supported, it can also be problematic. Some groups cannot guarantee houses for members who’ve put in substantial amounts of voluntary work, and integrating new residents who haven’t been on the same shared journey can be a challenge.

While acknowledging the limitations of Bristol’s land disposal policy, Paul Smith is hopeful for the future. “It seems it’s [now] embedded in the council – I can’t see anyone wanting to turn it off,” he says. “You need to start small before you can become big – housing associations started in the same way, [and] now they’re the biggest providers of social housing in the country.” 

Completed homes at the Merry Hill scheme, Lockleaze (credit: David Griffiths)

For the immediate future, the biggest challenge to community-led schemes scaling up is money, with the government having failed in 2022 to replenish a fund set up in 2016 to help projects get off the ground and to planning approval stage. This makes it much tougher for groups being newly allocated land, and leaves organisations like BCLT and Community Led Homes West facing an uncertain future. 

“No one now is investing strategically in our sector to help us bring projects forward in the first place,” warns Steve Dale, who says potential investors must “come further upstream”. 

“If we leave this to the market, and to the people with the most time, money and social capital, you’ll get community-led housing projects run by middle-class white people, for middle-class white people, not in the areas of greater housing need or for the people suffering most from poor housing,” he adds.

Reflecting on the journey of Merry Hill, Cowling says it’s crucial communities are enabled to try to do things differently. 

“It’s a long journey, and lots of people have been lost along the way, but we have kept a really good community-organised direction and momentum – that’s very powerful,” he says.

The Future of Cities project is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s Solutions Journalism Accelerator, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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