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Doing it for Ourselves – Dreams or Reality?

Grant Shapps made a typically popularist announcement at Grand Designs Live last week when he said ‘I can confirm that the Government will lead the way to promote more self build housing with plots available exclusively for self-builders on public sector land.’

Now I have a soft spot for Grand Designs and I also know the difficulties attached to finding plots of land in urban areas. I could bore you at length about my frustrations at trying to get Manchester City Council to extend a lease on a derelict plot in Manchester’s Northern Quarter so that I could build my dream house/office/cafe bar/gallery/urban garden…..aaah the dreams. That was in 2006 so the bureaucratic obstructiveness probably saved me from bankruptcy but the plot is still sadly derelict like a number of others in the area.

I spoke on a similar subject at the excellent Southwark Reborn event this week and tried to gently encourage council leader Peter John and lead member for regeneration, Fiona Colley, to work hard at releasing the smaller sites with development potential the borough owns (they own 40% of the freehold of the borough) and at using their powers to unlock stalled and derelict sites. Peter revealed that, having spent far too much time with developers, he now went round the borough spotting sites with potential!

And all this in the same week that I sat in a passionate and enthusiastic audience in East London listening to one of the pioneers of the Community Land Trust movement in the United States, John Davis, talk movingly about land trusts and their roots in civil rights resistance and the links to Martin Luther King.

It seems so appropriate that the man who said ‘I have a dream’ was closely connected to the idea that people could work together to design, develop and manage places to live and work that they aspired to rather than the blandness delivered by the development industry.

One of the examples in a book launched at NESTA this week, Compendium for the Civic Economy, was user led housing in Tubingen. This approach to housing is commonplace on the continent and some of the most innovative recent developments in Europe have been user rather than developer led. It seems that the community, the locality experts, can be not only better at planning neighbourhoods but also better at delivering them.

But these approaches have struggled recently in UK cities. Urban Splash’s innovative attempt to deliver self build in New Islington through the Tutti Frutti competition crashed and burned in the recession which deprived us of some fantastic new homes and a great piece in the jigsaw of the re-emerging neighbourhood of Ancoats. And in London the proposal for a community land trust at Woodberry Down appears to have been abandoned and the proposal in Southwark delayed.

But these setbacks appear likely to be temporary. The East London Community Land Trust is firing on all cylinders with strong community backing, Southwark council’s leadership seemed enthusiastic about making better use of their land assets, Government is supportive and the more far sighted elements of the development industry can see the advantages of making plots available to individuals, small co-housing groups and community land trusts and then working in partnership with them to deliver their dreams and to combine those dreams into better places for us all.

So it can surely only be a matter of time before we see a Grand Designs episode that follows a group of friends as they join together, perhaps in a community land trust, find a piece of public land and a far sighted developer partner and deliver a number of dreamed about homes as part of the regeneration of one of our inner urban neighbourhoods.


One Response

  1. Where the LA is a major landowner, especially a housing stockholder we’ve found that the possibilities for the release of plots are greater than imagined. All credit to authorities such as Ashford Borough and Brighton & Hove City for taking a systematic approach to ‘hidden homes’, using the skills of external consultants. It takes leadership to get these going but the regenerative effects on estates and the plot or housing value to the (public) landowner make the exercise quite compelling.

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