Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.
Community-led development must become central to how we build homes in the UK if we are to deliver the appropriate, affordable, proportional, sustainable housing needed across the country – and level up our communities following the pandemic.
But identifying the problem is simple. Landing on the solution is far more difficult.
Getting housing right is a critical part of levelling up. As a member of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) Select Committee, and chair of the APPG on Housing Market and Housing Delivery, I’ve focused a good proportion of my time thinking about how we turbocharge the offering outside of London.
Speed is key. Getting the right houses in the right place, at the right time is critical. Too often this is the bit that planning authorities do badly – massive developments rolled out over decades, causing existing infrastructure to creak while folk wait for promised improvements.
Levelling up, to MPs like me who were first elected in the 2019 election, means providing the investment and infrastructure locally that can convert renters to homeowners, or at the very least stop them being forced out of their geographical homeland to find the jobs they want or can afford.
Housing is one of the UK’s most significant economic anchors. It is how many people store and build their wealth, so a lot of us feel it when the market is doing well or poorly.
Striking the right balance is difficult, though. Even in places where people agree new homes need to be built, there is the disruption that comes during the construction phase and the natural desire to retain a community’s existing charm, food productivity, and the character of our towns and villages.
Many constituencies like mine have a mix of urban and rural areas which means that housing must always be appropriate, affordable, sustainable, and proportionate.
Most crucially, new homes must work for the communities they were built for. Too often it feels like planning is something the council enforces on its residents, giving them no say in their community. I’ve certainly witnessed this as an MP.
So I’ve been keen to better understand the alternative solutions. How can we square the circle of needing to get build more affordable houses, engaging communities, and not letting councils do ‘blobs on a map’ development?
Community Land Trusts (CLTs) appear to be one such – underutilised – solution. CLTs are run by the communities that will live in the homes they build, rather than a property developer, housing association or local authority. This makes them incredibly effective at ensuring that the housing delivered does in fact meet the needs of local people.
Once a CLT is established, membership is open to all who live or work in the community. A volunteer board is then elected by the membership to run the trust on their behalf on a day-to-day basis. Boards can be made up of supportive residents, employers with useful skills to offer, as well as other local stakeholders who want to ensure the CLT’s integrity is maintained – a donor of the land, for example.
CLT land is typically purchased at a reasonable fee from a landowner, a public body, or can be gifted by a private donor or local developer. I’ve been chatting to Aster Group, a housing association about this. It’s interesting.
A diversity of delivery models is always welcome and players in the market are thinking laterally the moment. I think organisations like Aster are making significant strides in new models of housing delivery and CLTs can work in both urban and rural areas.
One such CLT development in Chagford, West Devon, has ensured that people in an expensive, desirable area have access to affordable homes without having to move away from friends, family and job opportunities. The Chagford CLT was formed in 2013 with the immediate focus of providing affordable housing.
The result was 28 new homes with a mix of one-bedroom flats and two and three-bedroom houses, delivered at the request of the CLT.
Another CLT in action can be found in Eastington, Gloucestershire, where 50 more people now have access to affordable homes that, crucially, have been built to be sympathetic to the environment.
The community in Eastington needed new homes but also wanted to reduce its environmental impact. As a result, the CLT built homes with high levels of thermal efficiency and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
It seems to me that CLTs perfectly align not only with levelling up, but with the developing reforms to the planning system, which centre on involving communities more in local planning. And that’s definitely got to be a good thing.
We still need volume, in the right places, but most of all we need harmony. CLTs can have a critical role in tackling the housing challenges facing the UK, meeting specific housing requirements at a local level, and levelling up the country in a way that works for everyone.
Seeking far more strategic partnerships between government, housing providers and communities will be instrumental in managing these programmes and should be a central element of the UK’s approach to housing delivery.