“London needs community land trusts – and 2018 could be our year”

St Clements, Mile End: 23 of the 252 homes on the site are ownd by London CLT. Image: Linden Homes.

The co-director of the London Community Land Trust on how organisations like his own can help solve the housing crisis.

Londoners now agree that London need more affordable homes. There is also a political consensus, with the mayor and most local authorities making affordable housing a priority.

However, there is less consensus about what the word ‘affordable’ means, or about how to build the homes.

Let’s start with ‘affordable’. You might assume it would be linked to how much money people can afford, but you’d be wrong. Under the Localism Act 2012, affordable means anything up to 80 per cent of the local market rate. Homes sold under ‘shared ownership’ schemes, for example, can require buyers that earn £90,000 a year. Definitely not affordable for most Londoners.

Then there’s how the homes are built. Most private and public sector housebuilders fail to recognise how important social connections can be for people’s wellbeing, and the expertise people have about their neighbourhood. By not taking peoples’ relationships and expertise seriously, the mainstream approach is in danger of building homes but damaging communities. Cries of ‘social cleansing’ rise across the capital precisely in response to this approach, which risks creating a generation of people who remember this decade as the time their neighbourhood was taken from them.

So, what are Community Land Trusts (CLTs), and how can they help solve the problem? In general, CLTs exist to hold assets for the benefit of the local community, in a way that is governed democratically. Each trust is different. London CLT provides homes for people like Ruman, Humayra and Yunis.

Before moving into St. Clement’s, London CLT’s first site, they all lived in one room in Ruman’s parents’ flat. They didn’t have enough money to move out, but weren’t a priority for the council. Their choice was between cramped, difficult conditions or leaving their friends, family and community for good. The CLT provided a third option. Now they live in a 2 bedroom flat of their own, and can stay in the area they call home.

To ensure London CLT’s homes are affordable to people like Ruman and Humayra, each London CLT home is priced linked to local wages. Then, when residents move on, their lease requires them to sell the home at a price still linked to local wages. That means the homes are genuinely affordable to Londoners, and will stay that way.

The process of building London CLT’s homes is led by people who already live in an area. Each site is identified through local community organising campaigns, run in partnership with community organising charity Citizens UK. People from the area come together and are offered training in how to organise and get homes built.

The local authority is approached for its backing, often in assemblies of hundreds of people to show the support for the project. A site is then identified. Most of the sites London CLT work on are those that, without significant local support, would struggle to get through planning. CLT projects often unlock sites for housing that the private or public sector can’t.

Then, once land is secured, the same group of people make all the key decisions – how to raise the money, which architect to work with, and deciding the policy for who should get to live in the homes.

Community Land Trusts are gaining in popularity. From RUSS in Lewisham, to stART in Haringey, communities are organising to build the homes they need. Government at all levels is beginning to get on board: ministers announced the remaining £163m of the £300m Community Housing Fund in July 2018. The mayor of London has set a target to identify sites for at least 1,000 community-led homes by 2021, and set up the Community-Led Housing Hub to help support the sector. The potential for the sector to grow is substantial. In Berlin, 15 per cent of housing starts are delivered by community-led housing organisations. In England, it’s just 0.3 per cent.

CLT campaigners outside City Hall. Image: London CLT.

For London CLT, we moved our first residents into St. Clement’s in Mile End in June 2017. We now have agreements on six sites and enough land for around 160 homes, housing around 500 people in the next three or four years. Two of these sites are through TfL’s small sites programme, both announced by the mayor earlier this year.

For those in the sector, it feels like we are on the cusp of something big. Will we look back on 2018 as the year community-led housing really took off? Or a time when a few exciting projects were built, but not much more? You can probably tell which one we’re pushing for.

(A brief disclaimer: this article focuses on London. This is not because London is more important than anywhere else, it’s just that London is all I know about. There is also a growing community land trust movement in the rest of the country. To find out more check out the National CLT Network, and organisations like Leeds Community Homes, Granby 4 Streets and Bristol Community Land Trust.)

Calum Green is co-director of London Community Land Trust. Follow them @LondonCLT.


“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  

For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.