Could co-owned homes help solve the housing crisis?

Not enough of these: an aerial view of London. Image: Getty.

This year, London’s housing market has reached a new nadir: there are now more wards with average house prices of £750,000 than £300,000. Meanwhile, social housing has lengthy waiting lists and is unavailable for most Londoners.

Renting is the only option, with more than a quarter of Londoners now in the private rental sector – but it remains both expensive and insecure. Generation rent is in crisis and needs assistance.

A huge increase in house building across all tenures is undoubtedly required – but it’s not clear this will be enough to address ballooning house prices. Many people will still need to rent, and doing so must be made more attractive.

This is where new forms of “co-owned” housing – co-operatives owned by tenants – can help.

Currently, the private rented sector naturally encourages increased rents: as properties are re-let, rents can be set against higher averages. There is also little tenant security.

But under the co-owned model, tenants are central: enterprises provide greater security through long-term lets (although tenants can leave when they want), and affordability, through rents benchmarked to lower market levels and or income levels.

Reducing the biggest cost to households – housing – enables people to save (for a deposit, perhaps), and curbs imbalances between tenures. Co-owned housing is not simply a rental optional: it’s a credible alternative to home ownership. It would cater for many Londoners on incomes from £20,000 to £60,000, including the growing army of self-employed.

The plan

Here’s how it would work. Co-operative enterprises would be established, in the same manner as housing associations; these would then manage and let properties, and hold the leaseholds on a not-for-profit basis. The enterprises would be co-owned by tenants, giving them a stake and greater rights in their home. Practices like rip-off letting fees would cease – enterprises work for the benefit of tenants.

This is not just theoretical concept. In other countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, this form of housing is already common, and it’s being developed in Wales, too. The opportunity for London is to achieve scale and show leadership, making it a priority of the future mix and housing agendas of the new mayor to local authorities.

It’s not only tenants who’d benefit: there could be a boon for cash-strapped public authorities, too. Councils, Transport for London, Network Rail, the NHS and the police all have public land, where homes could be constructed, creating a long-term income. Even charities and semi-public institutions such as FE colleges and universities could benefit – and gain from enabling staff to live where they work.

Co-owned schemes could be financed in a number of ways: through land transfer, public funding, pension investment, or bonds and borrowing against future rental yields. Land sales could be used to kick start it, but they shouldn’t fund the whole thing: after all, the model is about enabling councils not to sell their assets, but to turn them instead into long-term income as well as affordable housing.

Such a scheme could be a good vehicle for pension investment and peer-to-peer lending. And major part of Crossrail has been financed through borrowing against future business rate and fare income – let’s use the model for new housing, too.

To rapidly unlock this housing, maximise the benefits and leverage funding, the new mayor should establish a development body on the model of Transport for London. This would contract developers to build homes which in turn could encourage new, innovative entrants. Here, too, Crossrail is a model, contracting companies to construct the new rail line. This transfers risk (though also gains).

A TfL development agency would help realise the savings of constructing in scale. The resulting savings could be used to fund more housing. Councils could also contract the TfL body, or set up their own.

The approach has many other advantages, too. It could spur new, higher levels of green building standards. The designs could use innovations like kit-built homes, and help develop supply chains and apprenticeships. Critically, it could unlock complex sites with multiple public owners and stop developers sitting on land.

Incentives would be turned around: the revenue generated for councils would mean that, instead of luxury flats, the housing London needs is built first. Finally, the new model could help curb transport gentrification impacts, which force people out of their neighbourhoods: instead, anchor affordable homes and help schemes like Crossrail 2 build support.

London can crack the liveability crisis. It can be a leader. The co-owning model can help deliver and scale quality, attractive, environmental, affordable, desirable housing.

Ultimately, we could see the equivalent of a modern “Georgian renaissance”: housing that stands the test of time and adds to London’s character and future success.

Jake Sumner is the author of “Building for Generation Rent”, a report published by the Policy Network.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.