Lime Legal

Cooperative dividend

Published 12 January 2024

Cooperative and mutual housing in Europe is up to 20 times larger than in the UK. The benefits include better quality and accountability of housing delivery. So why is it so under-developed in this country, Chris Handy asks

The cooperative and mutual housing sector is flourishing. Above average resident satisfaction and sound management are at the heart of its success, according to the independent Commission on Cooperative and Mutual Housing, which has just published a report Bringing Democracy Home calling for expansion of the sector.

The report is timely. The call for more John Lewis-style partnerships and the welcoming of other mutual options in the public sector has come from Labour and the Conservatives. While Labour stresses the role of state funding in grassroots approaches to the NHS and the police, for example, ‘Red Tory’ Conservatives have a vision of a ‘big society’ with renewed civic engagement at the local level.

Our report concludes that housing would be the ideal policy arena in which co-operative and mutual approaches could be pioneered, not only to bring us in line with European countries which have far more developed mutual housing sectors – up to 20 times larger than the UK – but also to improve the quality, efficiency and accountability of housing delivery.

Cooperative and mutual housing offers benefits that go beyond performance indicators. People in the sector take more responsibility and feel a greater sense of belonging, identity and ownership. Members who started out with broken lives acknowledge how mutual housing provided opportunities to reshape their future. Support for acquiring skills and moving into work are positive attributes of the sector.

Our research revealed that most cooperative and mutual housing members would not want to live in any other type of housing, not least because of the mutually supportive communities they have created.

Good citizenship goes with the territory – whether tackling climate change, volunteering as school governors, transforming the wider neighbourhood, promoting trust, or participating in activities that foster community cohesion.

So why is cooperative and mutual housing under-developed in this country compared to the rest of Europe? In other countries, government policy works in sympathy with grassroots community development much more than in the UK. And there is a legacy of top-down approaches to housing development which suggests that ordinary people and communities can’t be trusted to make housing decisions.

Yet a number of options already exist – cooperatives that collectively own and manage affordable homes, tenant management organisations leasing homes from other landlords, community gateways and mutuals offering resident involvement post-stock transfer, cohousing schemes, particularly for elderly and multi-generational communities, and community land trusts and mutual home ownership, couching aspirations for individual asset ownership in a community safety net.

All produce sustainable and mutually supportive communities with less reliance on the state, reducing the dependency of residents and moving away from detached managerialism. The commission is therefore challenging government, the social housing sector, the cooperative movement, financial institutions, and the cooperative and mutual housing sector itself to support the expansion of mutuality.

Greater political support is fundamental to make cooperative and mutual housing more widely available, along with a legal, regulatory and support framework sympathetic to a more democratic and localised housing system.

Our challenge to social housing providers is to recognise cooperative and mutual housing’s key role in helping the sector re-align its skills and expertise to encourage communities to take control.

A third challenge is to the wider cooperative movement, including commercial, financial and agricultural cooperatives, to put its dynamism, imagination and vision behind cooperative and mutual housing – the least developed sub-sector of the movement. In mutual terms, where people live is surely more important than where they shop or work.

The cooperative and mutual housing sector is also challenged to recognise that strong, transparent and accountable democratic governance needs to be built and maintained, and new support structures to help the sector expand have to be put into place. 

Funding is crucial. If cooperative and mutual housing – which the commission has shown to be a winner across a range of fronts – is to be available to more people and communities, a resources framework needs to be put into place. National and local government should work with the private sector to put into place sustainable mixed funding packages.

The commission concludes that the benefits of cooperative and mutual housing are indisputable and that democracy should start in the home. That is why we are calling for a target to be set that every town, village and community has a mutual housing organisation by 2030.

Dr Chris Handy is chief executive officer of Accord Housing Group and executive commissioner of the Commission on Cooperative and Mutual Housing.