Interview: Manchester’s Councillor Bev Craig on community-led housing

For years Manchester City Council (MCC) has had a chilling effect on any signs of life in the community-led housing (CLH) movement. Now, suddenly, it is counted among the Greater Manchester (GM) councils whose doors and ears are open to ideas for new, creative and democratic forms of housing.

MCC's new Director for Housing and Residential Growth, John Sawyer, has a background in community land trusts (CLTs) and community self-build. Councillor Suzanne Richards, Executive Member for Housing and Regeneration, has expressed interest in Housing Futures’ research project and attended our last event. Hannah Berry spoke to Councillor Bev Craig for her take on CLH from her perspective as Executive Member for Adult Services, Health and Wellbeing.

What role do you see for community-led housing in Manchester in the next few years?

BC: I can say there has definitely been a shift in terms of what the council is open to. I’ve been in my post a year, Suzanne Richards just one month, but things are moving.

I was raised in and come from a family who still live in council housing in Northern Ireland, so I grew up with a particular state-focussed view in defence of council housing – I didn’t realise there were other kinds of housing! I think what holds us back is an argument in which the extremes of state provision and the private sector are pitted against one another, whereas things like CLTs, while not necessarily replacing the state, can potentially step into the middle of all of that. But I cover adult services, health and social care devolution, so while I have views on housing my responsibility is really just in terms of the interface with people with vulnerabilities, such as people with learning disabilities and older people.

Given that, is cohousing a model you have looked into?

BC: Take older people, who tell us very clearly that they want somewhere safe and secure where they can stay for the rest of their lives, with the right kind of support. There is a clear Extra Care ‘offer’ being developed across the city – mainly based around two-bed apartments for over-55s who have a range of care needs, from none to severe.

There are Extra Schemes across the city, with more to come. For one of the most recent of these, Wythenshawe 135, we adopted a mixed tenure model – a combination of social rent, shared ownership and outright ownership. But while the social rent flats were all snapped up, the others are proving hard to sell or let. Future schemes (apart from the LGBT Extra Care scheme in Whalley Range, which is a special case with particular drivers) will all be for social rent, with applications assessed on need along a range of criteria.

This leaves space for other things, cohousing being one example. There are older people who may not have the same care needs but still suffer from isolation and loneliness, and senior cohousing potentially presents real opportunities for people who wouldn’t fit the extra care criteria for financial or social reasons.

Can you imagine democratically controlled housing working for other vulnerable communities, such as people who have been street homeless, or who have with particular disabilities?

BC: Housing is obviously only one part of the picture in terms of social care, but access to good decent genuinely affordable housing is part of how people can live fulfilled lives. For example, learning disabled people currently either live independently in the community or they live in communities with a very high level of support – there is not much in between. We want to see a middle way, and we are planning to build 60 units cross North, Central and South Manchester that are self-contained with support on hand, with a different provider in each area. There is nothing to say such schemes couldn’t in theory be democratically controlled, although we are a way away from that at the moment.

Basically, examples of successful working models are needed for reassurance – to reassure us that statutory guidelines and safeguards could all be properly met. For the state to let go we have to be sure the alternatives are ethical and safe – and certainly this is not the case with some of the outsourcing and subcontracting which has been going on, such as in the case of the asylum housing run by Serco.

What can the council do to encourage interest in CLH?

BC: Suzanne has already met with various groups, and we are keen to learn more about CLTs and how they can be used to drive affordable housing. Our interest in cohousing started because someone came to us and explained what they wanted to do and how it could work.

The council is at a stage where we don’t think we have all the answers, we want to look outside. Take for example Citizens Advice operating out of some GP surgeries – we shouldn’t be too proud to say that’s an idea that has been copied from Liverpool, Cardiff and other places.

The widening out of the housing debate is very helpful for kicking out ideas and embedding a creative conversation about what’s possible, and so is GM devolution. Previously all the GM local authorities acted separately, but now we have that connectivity. However, more work needs to be done to shift councils to the point of having a holistic vision for the region - we are still very young in terms of devolution, and only starting down that road of consensus building.

CLH is one of the areas where we could have a coherent GM-wide plan, seeing where different models could fit in. A GM land bank with first refusal for CLH is an option; not forgetting the possibilities afforded by the Housing Investment Fund. And it’s not just housing – at the GMCA meeting last week we approved the establishment of a Co-operative Commission aimed at bringing co-op values and approaches more strongly into all of areas of local government.

There are all kinds of visions for CLH, lots of different models out there, and different interest groups will need and want different things. But perhaps there could be a broad GM model. What might that look like? We wouldn’t want it to be tokenistic.

Alongside our research, Housing Futures is helping to establish an independent, co-operative regional support hub for CLH. Do you see this as a good idea?

BC: Yes, I do. There is need for professional guidance and expertise, and there is also a role for advocacy and sharing examples of what can work. Rightful challenge from the outside is essential.

There should be opportunities again now like there were during the regeneration of Hulme [when Manchester’s only new build social rent co-op, Homes for Change, was built]. The Northern Gateway for example - in the Strategic Masterplan we talk about 15,000 new homes for social and affordable rent. But where or how these are built hasn’t been decided yet.

So scope for a CLT, for example? We know many Collyhurst residents are very worried about the gentrification of their neighbourhood, and the threat of displacement.

BC: Exactly. We need to see more CLTs in urban environments – there are examples in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, but it’s new. We need the evidence base to create trust that these projects can work.

What role do you see for the voluntary and community sector in this?

BC: They have a variety of roles to play from community voice to campaigning. For example the work Shelter has been doing - they’ve had a variety of successes combining policy research and campaigning, such as on closing the viability loop. There is potential for groups to not just campaign but to pull together some of their solutions and influence the way things are done.

What is happening now is that, if we aren’t careful, Manchester risks its past success if it sows the seeds of future failure, and we need to proactively intervene in the housing market before it’s too late. What I mean is, the city is still incredibly attractive to people to come and live here, but if we build to only to new demand, our existing communities could be forced out. There are fewer and fewer hard-to-rent areas in the city. People talk about the high rises being empty asset boxes but there are very few empties when you look into it – developers are seeing good turnover and yield.

So if you were to sum up more generally some of the key questions for the city?

BC: How can we protect the communities already here? How can we ensure places are actually liveable in? I believe, for example, that you can defend green spaces by giving priority to a coherent housing strategy - one that takes into account not just homes but all the other services and assets that make up a neighbourhood and which make up quality of life.

We can’t solve everything immediately – socially, intellectually, financially - but Manchester, and Greater Manchester has opportunity to do things differently now. In terms of housing, increasingly we do see ourselves working in partnership with, and led by, local communities.

8th August 2018.