GROWING AFFORDABLE COHOUSING

UK COHOUSING NETWORK ANNUAL CONFERENCE NOVEMBER 2015 – a report by Maria Brenton

No-one ever dreamed there would come a day when the national conference was oversubscribed and had to turn people away.  With more members joining every week, the cohousing movement definitely now has wind in its tail and the next conference will need a larger venue.   140 people gathered in Birmingham around the theme ‘Growing affordable cohousing in the UK’ . The atmosphere was peppy and optimistic and full of energy and the whole thing superbly organised.

Cohousing conference 2015We started with an open mike session, chaired by me, Cohousing Woodside’s representative on the Network, reflecting on ‘Cohousing: an idea whose time has come?’, with speakers from the Network, the K1 Group in Cambridge and the asset-based-community-development movement.   This set the scene on opportunities and possibilities offered by cohousing.

Then we broke into workshops and learning circles.   Mine was about ‘Money, money, money’ which I took myself to for self-education about available sources of funding for new groups.   Other topics included ‘Design – more than buildings’; Legal issues; ‘Finding land and property’; ‘Cohousing when the honeymoon is over’ and, finally, ‘How to write a business plan’.

In the lunch hour we circulated and could take advantage of various support surgery sessions from concerns like Triodos Bank and the Ecology Building Society, as well as Wrigleys solicitors, who have specialised in cohousing. Some contributed their favourite recipes to the Network Cookbook, others took part in Vox Pop snap interviews.

The afternoon session I attended focused on Retrofit. Some expected it to discuss refurbishing old buildings; I expected it to highlight community development methods.  Well it did, indirectly, and we heard much that was interesting and valuable from Transition Streets, based in Totnes.   Small groups of neighbours who had never spoken to each other before were brought together to examine their use of energy, water and other resources and to help spend £625,000 of government money in three months on putting PV panels on their roofs.   63 transition groups made an average household annual saving of £570.   In the process, they also got to know each other and those small steps led to neighbourhoods where sharing and a sense of community took root, cars were ‘surgically removed’ and food habits became less wasteful.

An OWCH member ran a decision-making workshop on ‘The N-Street Decision-Making Process’.   Lilac and Lancaster combined with a workshop on building community.   Another workshop told the story of the K1 ‘Professionally Enabled’ Group in Cambridge.

The conference ended with a lively ‘Soap Box – 100 Communities by 2015’ where individuals spoke up their ideas for the future where ‘Cohousing would be the new normal’, as in countries like Germany. Ideas tumbled over each other:

  • ‘Inventing a new Planning Use Class C5 for Cohousing’
  • ‘a toolkit for maintaining (not just starting) cohousing’   ‘documenting existing cohousing experience and making it available online’
  • ‘transforming the notion of housing from a speculative commodity to a human right’
  • ‘re-invent the building society’
  • ‘persuade the Ethical Property Company to develop housing not just offices’
  • ‘the Network to give as much attention to collaborative working as to bricks and mortar’
  • ‘Join forces with other similar movements and organisations – crossover working’
  • ‘use the buildings we’ve got for cohousing – it’s all too slow’
  • ‘Engage the National Landlords Association with cohousing – they would benefit from it’
  • ‘Show citizens how to get their voice heard by politicians’.

By the end, it was not 100 cohousing communities that were aspired to, but trillions!

This conference was the swan song of the Network Coordinator, Jo Gooding, who is moving to another job and will be missed.