Creating homes not just houses

Tübingen is committed to prioritising self-build building co-operatives

By David McAllister, PAS

As 2017 drew to a close, the Scottish Government introduced new legislation to the Scottish Parliament about planning our built environment.

The introduction of the Planning (Scotland) Bill follows the launch of an independent review of the planning system in Scotland (which published its findings in May 2016), followed by a position statement from the Scottish Government in June last year.

The review invited views from individuals and organisations and, when the whole process is completed, it will result in the first major change to the planning system in Scotland since the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006.

The provision of housing was a major theme in the review, with a focus on “the delivery of more high-quality homes”. This acknowledged a shortage of housing and, importantly, highlighted the need not just for housing but for homes – and affordable homes. The review also recognised the links between people having a home and their wider well-being and equality.

Housing, like almost everything else, is about demand and supply, and Scottish Government-funded support to help people get onto the ‘property ladder’ – for instance, through a help-to-buy scheme – has proven a welcome boost, for many especially young people in their 20s and 30s, on the demand side.

But the key issue is supply. We face an enormous housing shortage in Scotland and any remedy is going to have to take on the challenge of increasing supply.

Housing can be delivered in a variety of ways, including traditional housebuilders, Housing Associations and individuals choosing to self-build. But are we overlooking an important additional element from this mix?

At PAS, we’ve seen a growing interest from communities in co-housing initiatives over the last few years, as an alternative way to delivering affordable homes. Co-housing is a form of collective self-build and can take a number of different forms and cover all different tenures.

The idea of co-housing finds its roots in Scotland – from the establishment of the Camphill School (and subsequently Camphill Village Trusts) in Aberdeen in the late 1930s and the Findhorn Community in the 1960s. However, it is elsewhere in Europe that co-housing has really established itself as an effective vehicle for creating homes and communities.

The architect, Patrick Devlin, has described co-housing as “an intentional community, with shared interests, aspirations and ethics, that wants to leverage that into a physical space where the balance of privacy and communality is critical”.

It is this balance between the private and the communal that is at the heart of co-housing and that makes it a flexible approach to delivering homes – people come together and define what they need and how a development can best work for them and their community.

The model used in one location will not necessarily be the right one for another location, it will depend on the aspirations of the community, the local authority’s approach toward such initiatives and the context of the local area. But the approach – of enabling communities to deliver the kind of homes that they want and need – can bring benefits in any location.

Co-housing offers particular benefits to both ends of the housing market, helping both first-time buyers and renters, as well as an ageing population looking for a greater choice in housing options later in life.

The status quo is particularly failing these two ends of the spectrum and the lessons from elsewhere in Europe show that co-housing can be part of the solution. The benefits are not just economic (co-housing is often cheaper to deliver), but social and environmental, empowering communities to have a tangible influence over their place.

In a recent piece of research, Edinburgh-based architect, Malcolm Fraser, said: “[Co-housing] empowers local groups to obtain land and commission design, resulting in more innovative architectural solutions than the market currently delivers.”

Look at such an example, in Germany (see Doing things differently below).

According to research by Steven Tolson, a recent former Chair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland, less than 0.5 per cent of all housing stock in the UK is delivered by co-housing, whereas the European average is ten per cent. And in countries such as Sweden, this number rises to nearly 20 per cent. In total, according to relatively recent figures, self-build, including co-housing, accounts for 50 per cent of housing stock in Europe, but only 10-15 per cent in the UK.

New homes can be delivered effectively through co-housing and self-build elsewhere in Europe. Why not in Scotland? The new Planning Bill is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to find new ways to achieve its own ambitious target of 50,000, new and affordable homes by the end of this parliamentary term, 2021.

One way to reach that target (and go beyond it) would be to recognise the contribution that all types of house building can play in delivering affordable homes in Scotland. In a society where homelessness and lack of access to a home is seen as unacceptable, we need to look at all the levers at our disposal for delivering quality, affordable homes.

The co-housing and collective self-build agenda needs support to overcome the institutional barriers they face, including changes to the financial and legal arrangements needed (e.g. establish a collective self-build loan fund or a Scottish mutual finance structure). Scotland can reap the benefits that co-housing delivers elsewhere in Europe, but, to do so, we need to do things differently.

Having begun in Scotland, and having already made a big contribution to delivering homes in Europe, isn’t it time for Scotland to re-embrace co-housing?

The independent review of the planning system specifically highlighted co-housing and self-build in its recommendations: “There is a significant opportunity to move beyond the debate on housing numbers, to actively promote more innovative delivery models, such as the build-to-rent sector, self-build and co-housing models. Many believe that there is a need for greater flexibility and a move away from reliance on the market sector to meet housing needs.”

Whilst the new Bill itself makes no specific reference to co-housing and self-build at this stage, its accompanying policy guidance suggests that the proposed new Simplified Development Zones introduced in the Bill may help to unlock land for “alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build”.

At the same time as the Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament in December, the Scottish Government launched a £90,000 pilot project for custom and self-build, to provide support to individuals looking to build their own home

Through the bill process and the new pilot scheme, there’s a chance that Scotland just might be about to re-embrace co-housing.

Doing things differently

One European town parcels up plots and readies them for development, predominantly for small-scale co-operatives to develop

The university town of Tübingen, a small city around 40km south of Stuttgart, has been doing things differently. The city purchases land and readies it for development. Since 1985, all development has taken place on brownfield sites. The focus has been on creating urban neighbourhoods instead of mono-functional residential estates.

This means a lot of small-scale, mixed-use developments, mixing homes with shops, offices and workshops – indeed, the town is known as the ‘city of short distances’ because nothing is very far away in a mixed-use city. The mayor talks about public space as the ‘living room of the neighbourhoods’ – and places great emphasis on enabling residents creating quality public spaces.

But what is perhaps most interesting about the development of Tübingen in recent years, is that the city has committed to prioritising self-build building co-operatives. The city parcels up plots and readies them for development, predominantly for small-scale co-operatives to develop.

These co-operatives can be made up of individuals, couples, families and even small companies – in effect, groups made up of different generations, working together. Each of these groups forms a co-operative and then commissions an architect to come up with designs that meet their needs.

These builds typically come in at up to 20% lower cost than would be the case with a traditional private developer, with higher standards (because the people living in them have designed them) and have no problem attracting financing from local banks, which have designed financial instruments to support collective builds.

The entire ethos of these new developments in Tübingen is for local people to be active participants in shaping their places. The city gains more liveable, sustainable and more inclusive communities on former brownfield sites, while citizens become actors and influencers of their own high-quality place.

Communities leading the way

Local Place Plans will be an opportunity for communities to exercise greater influence

The new Planning Bill that is making its way through the Scottish Parliament has introduced new opportunities for communities to be more involved in shaping their local places.

Picking up on one of the 48 recommendations made by the Independent Review of the Scottish Planning System in May 2016, the Scottish Government has put introduced ‘Local Place Plans’ in the new Planning Bill.

The idea is that Local Place Plans will significantly improve community engagement in the planning process by enabling local people to articulate their voice from the very beginning of the development plan process.

We have supported and promoted the idea of community-led plans here at PAS for some time. The concept of a community-led plan marks a notable shift from the traditional council-led Local Development Plan, moving away from top-down and enabling a community-up approach. In fact, we helped to trial just such an approach.

In the summer of 2015, the Highland Council approved an innovative Community Land Use Plan, designed to reverse population decline on the Isle of Rum. The Plan was approved as supplementary planning guidance to the West Highlands and Islands Local Development Plan.

The Isle of Rum Community Trust (IRCT) enlisted the help of PAS to produce the plan, which is based on a significant amount of community engagement with Rum residents and other key stakeholders such as Scottish Natural Heritage, whilst working in partnership with the Highland Council.

The plan will give the Community Trust and current and future residents of the island more certainly as to where much-needed new houses can be located and will help meet the Trust’s aim of growing the population of the island to a more sustainable level. The plan also looked at other possible changes on the island including improving the village centre of Kinloch and creating a better tourist experience.

Consideration has also been given to the fact that any development on Rum must be balanced with the need to protect its unique natural and built heritage which includes the A-Listed Kinloch Castle and a high number of natural heritage designations.

Nic Goddard, a director of the Isle of Rum Community Trust said: “This plan will help pave the way to attracting new people and businesses to invest in Rum. We need to grow the population of our village and diversify the island’s economy and this plan will help bring us closer to making that happen.

We would like to thank Awards for All Scotland and also Highland Council for their ground-breaking support in allowing this plan to take place – and to PAS who together with their associates and volunteers undertook a fun and engaging process working with the community and Highland Council to deliver a very user-friendly result.”

Speaking at the time of the Community Land Use Plan being approved, Tim Stott, Highland Council Principal Planner, said: “The Highland Council has supported the aims of this engagement-based project and believes that this kind of community-led plan could be a model for other communities in its area.”

The example of the Isle of Rum Community Land Use Plan would be a good starting point when considering what Local Place Plans could achieve and how they might work on the ground.

In the current climate, local authorities simply do not have the resources to create localised plans to the level of detail as the Rum Community Land Use Plan, but nor are they the best placed to create them. Communities are those who are best placed to create Local Place Plans, with this plan feeding up into the Local Development Plan that covers the wider area.

Not only will this be an opportunity for communities to exercise greater influence, it will allow local authorities to benefit from community knowledge and help achieve the community’s aspirations for their place.

Local Place Plans promise a more collaborative approach, where communities will be able to exert and equal ownership of the plan just as much as the local authority.

But as part of the new right to create a Local Place Plan, there will also be a responsibility on the community groups working together to create their plan to ensure that all voices are heard within the community, as part of a transparent, open and inclusive process.

Whatever form Local Place Plans ultimately take as the Bill moves through the Scottish Parliament, we look forward to continuing to help communities across Scotland create the kind of place that works for them.