“I cried – I had to go round touching things,” remembers Joy, a 50-year-old single mother, of the day in 2023 when she moved into her maisonette at Merry Hill, a new estate of 50 ‘community-led’ eco-homes in Lockleaze.
Joy, a learning support assistant, has been in Bristol since 2012. She previously lived in a Yorkshire housing co-op, where her sons were born, but left after her relationship broke down and settled in St George.
Having a secure home was her priority. But Joy missed the cooperative’s benefits: “living in a community… going to meetings and deciding things”. In 2017 she heard about Bristol Community Land Trust (BCLT), a non-profit member-run housing organisation, and its plans to develop Merry Hill on a derelict allotment site off Shaldon Road in Lockleaze. Prospective residents first needed to join BCLT.
“At the time I wasn’t really interested – it was [across town] and my kids were younger and went to school in St George,” Joy explains. “It was putting an egg in a basket for the future.”
That future was not straightforward. Joy was twice at risk of homelessness after private landlords decided to sell. She was eventually offered her new home at Merry Hill after another prospective tenant dropped out, but construction delays meant she endured an “excruciating” three-year wait before moving in.
Many trust members bought into the Merry Hill scheme under a shared-ownership arrangement, and are relatively affluent. But others like Joy have been housed via Bristol City Council’s waiting list, under a policy that sets aside 50% of new community-led homes for people on the social housing register.
How is this arrangement working out? Can schemes like Merry Hill deliver homes for members while also help to meet Bristol’s wider housing need? And with funding for community-led housing shrinking, what future is there for the model?
‘You can sign up for £1’
Merry Hill was developed jointly by BCLT and its housing association partner Brighter Places, which took a leading role after the trust ran into financial difficulties. An arrangement was reached with the council to give priority to Lockleaze residents over- or under-occupying affordable homes in the area, a spokesperson for Brighter Places explains.
Aadaya Adlam, a 34-year-old single mum of three, secured her home in this way. Originally from Derby, she fled domestic violence in 2014 and moved to Bath – but could only get a school space for her eldest daughter in Bristol, at Stoke Park.
After being offered a move into social housing, Aadaya was offered a housing association property in Lockleaze. But in 2017, she became pregnant with her third child – meaning her place would be technically overcrowded after the baby was born.
“As soon as I found out, I had to be on [social housing allocations system] HomeChoice because our tenancy before was only [for] two adults [and] two children,” she says.
In 2019, there was a community event at the Lockleaze Hub community centre. “BCLT were there,” Aadaya recalls. “I went along by chance, they were like, ‘Oh, you can sign up for £1’ – and not even six months later I was offered this [home at Merry Hill].”
Both Joy and Aadaya were notified about spaces at Merry Hill by BCLT and were encouraged to apply through Homechoice. Besides prioritising Lockleaze residents, properties at the scheme were targeted at people on the council waiting list’s less acute categories of housing need – Band 3 and 4 – rather than those most urgently requiring a new home.
This was because Merry Hill was still being built, with residents also expected to put in time ‘self-finishing’ homes before moving in – effectively meaning they had to learn a skill such as painting, tiling or carpentry. In exchange, they are offered so-called ‘sweat equity’ – reduced rent, additional equity in a shared-ownership home, or an equivalent contribution in vouchers towards furniture or white goods.
“It was hard, as a single mum, trying to do all of those hours [as well as working],” says Aadaya. She adds that she worried about her tenancy being affected after illness meant she was not able to put in as much time as agreed into finishing the homes.
Striking a balance
Among Bristol’s community-led housing groups, there is broad support for places on new schemes being offered to people on the social housing register. But finding a fair compromise between delivering homes to longstanding members of trusts and similar groups and housing people in need is tricky.
At Merry Hill, successful applicants were interviewed by a panel of BCLT members and Brighter Places employees. This was in part to assess how well they would fit into the community – which members are expected to actively contribute to.
“That’s key [with] a project like this,” explains Joy, who with her experience of cooperative living feels the interviews could have done more to probe people’s willingness to really engage. “You can’t have a community that works on this level without a lot of buy-in.”
Noah Fagan is project manager of a site at Sea Mills where 14 new homes are being developed by Tiny House Community Bristol (THCB), a membership organisation that advocates living simply and sustainably in small homes. He argues allocations haven’t got the balance right, with some group members volunteering time and energy on projects – sometimes for years – but not being guaranteed a home when they are complete.
Fagan says some THCB members have been priced out of Bristol, which breaks the ‘local connection’ you need to get onto HomeChoice.
For Joy, who was twice unsuccessful bidding for a place at Merry Hill despite a strong desire to be part of the project, this was a frightening prospect. “I had this image of me moving further and further out [of Bristol] into shittier and shittier [private rented] accommodation,” she says.
What should change? Fagan isn’t certain, but argues community groups must be more involved in the allocations process. “We need a system where community-led groups can jump into the housing register… and say, ‘This is what we’re doing [with a given project], and this is who we feel like would benefit’.”
Tom Renhard, Bristol City Council’s housing chief, says community-led housing groups have received “considerable support” and that the council works “closely with [community groups] to ensure that their policies for allocations are inclusive and allow engagement in decision making, as well as being subject to an equalities impact assessment”.
Climate of uncertainty
But the future for community-led housing in Bristol now looks less bright than it did a few years ago. While the council has taken a pioneering ‘land disposal’ approach, offering community groups pockets of land it owns that are unappealing to commercial developers, the financial climate has become bleaker.
“Government policy has made things increasingly difficult for community-led housing groups,” says Renhard, especially since it failed in 2022 to renew a national fund to help projects get as far as planning approval stage. This partly contributed to the recent winding-up of Community Led Homes West (CLHW), the regional support hub for groups in the West of England, which had been aiming to become self-sufficient within two years.
Delays in the council’s planning and legal departments have also held up two small schemes, totalling 24 homes, back in Lockleaze. Suzanne Wilson, the chief executive of Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust (LNT), which is behind the stalled developments, says the lease for the larger 19-home site has still not been agreed. This means a grant needed to begin work cannot be drawn down. “We hope to do that in the next couple of months, but it’s not guaranteed,” she says.
According to the council, 57 community-led homes currently have planning permission, and it is in the process of agreeing the disposal of sites for a further 57 homes. These numbers are hardly going to dent Bristol’s huge waiting list, which numbers more than 20,000 households. But with the council extending the priority for local residents used at Merry Hill, they can make an impact at neighbourhood level, enabling people to find a new home close to their old one.
Reflecting on her own move to Merry Hill, Aadaya acknowledges there have been setbacks, including technical issues with the state-of-the-art eco homes’ heating and ventilation systems.
“I’m different to 90% of the neighbours – I’ve come in knowing nothing about gardening, or eco, or anything like that,” she adds. “That was never anything I’d learned in my upbringing, and I think my mindset is different.”
But asked whether she thinks about moving again, Aadaya has no doubt. “Hell no – this is home,” she says. She adds that she has found other residents “open and inclusive” and has learned a lot from them.
“There’s not one neighbour I feel like I couldn’t go to if I felt like I needed something,” Aadaya says. “I would say overall the project was a success.”
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