Small cottages beside a small stream with a water mill. It's a lovely sunny day and the village looks quaint.

What does ‘community self-build’ mean? Is it a building site where everyone is trained up and organised to work together on each other’s homes collectively?

Or maybe a neighbourhood group setting up a project as a low cost route to helping local young people to get on the housing ladder?

Or might it be a group of friends wanting to create an intentional community with shared living spaces?

In reality, these are all forms of community self-build, which encompasses a wide range of projects.

The common thread running through them all is people organising themselves together to create the kinds of homes – and communities – that they want.

Community self-build projects may be set up and run by the people who are planning to live in them, or they may be led by other people or organisations that have a desire to create opportunities for others. Homes may be privately owned, co-owned or rented. The future residents themselves are often involved in some stage of the project planning and design, but not necessarily.

Different projects have different membership criteria, with some being driven primarily by market forces while others are restricted to particular groups such as local people on the housing register. Some may require a certain level of community participation among members, both during and after the build phase, while others may simply be a place to live. For anyone with an interest in creating more dynamic, supportive, sociable and sustainable neighbourhoods, community self-build is a powerful grassroots tool for catalysing this change.

‘Self-build’ doesn’t have to mean doing the building work yourself, and you don’t need professional skills to take part

In fact, a very common approach for community housing in both the UK and Europe is for the group to commission a contractor to undertake the major building works.

For projects which involve high-density urban housing – whether in terraces or apartment blocks – this is especially important as it helps ensure speed, uniformity and quality of construction and is of particular significance in projects that are grant-funded with very strict deadlines for completion. With other self-build group projects, there may be flexibility in the amount of work that each household chooses to do on their own home. Some residents may choose to do the work themselves in order to save money, while others will prefer to project manage contractors, or a bit of both.

What really defines ‘self-build’ is self-determination: the ability to choose who does the work and how it is done.

“Before I got involved with the Ashley Vale project, I had never even put up a shelf before,” says Bristol self-builder Anna Hope.

Fortunately, as part of a group of 20 individuals, couples and families building their homes alongside each other, there were plenty of opportunities to learn the necessary skills. The group clubbed together to bring in experts to train them in building design principles and basic construction techniques and from there, each household chose how much or how little they wanted to be involved in the actual building work.

Some self-build projects actively involve a comprehensive training programme, where self-builders are supported all the way by a dedicated team of professionals. This has the added benefit of developing professional skills that might lead to future employment for the self-builders.

For other projects, the group may prefer to contract out some or all of the building work, meaning that the project can move forward quickly and smoothly and perhaps leaving the residents to do only the finishing touches themselves. Practical construction work isn’t the only useful skill to bring to a project. When working as part of a group there are many other skills that will be invaluable right from the start – such as group facilitation, project management, book-keeping, minute taking, legal expertise, financial expertise, environmental management, architectural design, child minding…

Community self-build is a great way to provide affordable housing

Anyone watching Grand Designs would be forgiven for thinking that self-build is only for the wealthy – or at the very least, someone who already has at least a foot on the housing ladder. However community-led housing offers a range of different models which all aim to offer well-designed homes that are affordable for local people.

Keeping homes ‘affordable’ usually means finding ways to reduce the costs of land and/or construction or subsidising the costs of buying into a scheme, while also having a long-term strategy to limit the price that homes can be sold or rented for into the future.

Models for affordable community-led housing include community land trusts (CLTs) – locally-managed organisations which hold land and buildings in trust for the benefit of the local community. CLTs are most commonly used as a route to create affordable homes for people with connections to the local area, and are particularly valuable in rural areas where young people are priced out of the property market by second homes and are finding it hard to stay in the area.

There are now more than 170 CLTs in the UK. There have also been many affordable self-build projects across the UK run by dedicated organisations such as the Community Self Build Agency and occasionally by housing associations. These projects give residents the opportunity to benefit from learning new skills and developing greater self-confidence and self-esteem through building their own home.

Housing co-operatives and mutual home ownership societies offer another mechanism to reduce costs of housing. Residents don’t buy or rent their own individual home but can instead buy shares in the co-op. The price of shares can be set at a level that is affordable for each member – for example as a proportion of the individual’s income, thereby keeping membership within reach of people on lower earnings. This model generally relies on having a membership with a broad range of incomes so that those on higher earnings can cross-subsidise the costs for others.

Living collectively can be easier with self-build

The idea of living more communally is growing in popularity. Co-operative housing has made up a small but significant form of housing management since the 1970s: this involves the residents owning and/or managing homes collectively.

The common theme is equality in decision making, with each member receiving one vote in all collective decisions. An alternative form of housing that is rapidly gaining popularity is co-housing. In fact, between 2012 and 2014 the number of new co-housing groups in the UK doubled. In this model, each household owns or rents its own individual home but there is also some element of shared space, which is owned collectively. Co-housing projects usually require residents to commit to a certain level of involvement in communal activities, for example preparing meals, undertaking maintenance or gardening work and attending meetings. This can create a sense of very close and active community, with the intention that everyone works for the common good.

Co-housing may be particularly attractive for people who have additional needs and would benefit from living in a close support network. For example, the concept of senior co-housing is attracting more attention and is seen as a great solution to the social isolation that many people can experience in later years of life.

For people wanting to live more collectively, it can be hard to find the right place to set up a project using existing homes or buildings. Self-build allows a group to start from scratch and create the right balance of individual and shared space to suit its needs. Two recent examples of self build co-housing projects are LILAC in Leeds and Lancaster Cohousing.

Start-up or ‘seed corn’ funding is available for some groups

Many people dream of setting up a self-build project but don’t get past the dreaming phase.

To start turning a dream into reality, lots of support may be needed to ensure that the group has access to the skills, expertise and knowledge to develop a solid vision, strategy and business plan. This can all seem pretty daunting, but fortunately there is some help at hand.

A number of grant funding pots are available depending on the type of project you are proposing. It is generally easier to get funding for a project if it is run by, and for, the local community and has open membership. See, for example, the Community-led Buildings grants. You might also be able to find small pots of funding locally from charitable trusts and other philanthropic organisations.

Community-led Buildings grants

There are specialist lenders who can offer development finance

Once you’ve got to the stage of having a sound business plan then you should be ready to seek out development finance. Community self-build groups are regarded as commercial developers and in theory should be able to access development finance from a range of mainstream commercial lenders, such as high street banks. However they may find specialist lenders more sympathetic and suited to their specific needs.

Examples of lenders or intermediaries that specialise in community projects include Triodos Bank, the Ecology Building Society, Charity Bank and Resonance.

Banks and specialist lenders

Local authorities are required to support opportunities for self-build and custom house building in their areas

Thanks to the new self-build and custom housebuilding legislation, which comes into force on 1 April 2016, local councils will be required to keep a register of prospective self-builders and custom builders and to have regard to their register when carrying out their planning, housing, land-disposal and regeneration functions.

Each register will be open to applications from both individuals and associations of individuals and groups of people who at a minimum want input into the design or layout of their principal home. The Housing and Planning Bill goes further by requiring the same authorities that hold a register to ensure that there are sufficient permissioned serviced plots of land suitable for self-build and custom housebuilding projects consistent with the demand on their register. Self-build groups that are looking for land are strongly advised to register their interest with their local planning authority as soon as possible. The more information you are able to give your council about the type of project you want to do, the more likely you will hear about suitable opportunities. So get registering now!

Self-build groups are already very successful in some parts of Europe

Although collective self-build projects are still relatively uncommon in the UK, they are very common in other European countries.

In Berlin, ‘Baugruppen’ (build groups) account for around 10% of new homes built in the city. The groups are self-organised, often with the support of a dedicated project manager, and there is a structured process for bidding for sites that are allocated by the local council. Knowledge about these European models of community self-build is gradually becoming more widespread in the UK. As most of them rely on specific support from local councils, they will only catch on here if the support is made available.

If this is of interest to you, contact your local council planning or housing department and let them know the demand is there.

Being involved in a community self-build project can improve your quality of life

Some food for thought:

  • 1 in 10 people have no close relatives or friends to turn to in case of an emergency
  • In the past 15 years, the number of people aged 55-64 who are living alone has increased by 50%
  • £2.5 billion = the estimated annual cost to the NHS due to sub-standard housing
  • 3 out of 4 people would prefer not to buy a home built by a mainstream developer.

Being involved in a community self-build project offers many benefits – both to residents and to those who are responsible for the project. The chance to contribute towards your local area, a sense of belonging and the ability to influence local decisions all give a powerful sense of wellbeing. Residents of group schemes have also reported a greater level of trust in their neighbours and a lower fear of crime. This is in addition to the personal benefits of having a safe, comfortable and well designed home to live in, the new skills, friends and job opportunities that may be created, and of course a treasure chest of stories to share for years to come.

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Right to Build

Using Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights can be a great way to create more opportunities for self-build and community housing in the longer term.

Some Neighbourhood Plans have specifically included policies to support self-build – see Petersfield Neighbourhood Plan for an example of this. Neighbourhood Development Orders and the Community Right to Build are also local planning processes which allow the community to designate particular forms of development and might help to increase self-build opportunities. Other Community Rights might also come in handy, for example the Community Right to Reclaim Land could help to secure land or buildings for use as community housing. This kind of approach can help community groups to compete with larger developers, as support from local people is essential for success.

Find out more about Neighbourhood Planning

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