We are in the throes of a housing crisis. Millions are facing astronomical and ever-increasing rents, whilst families are stuck in temporary accommodation, and aggressive social cleansing driven by gentrification is underway in our major cities.

Crises like this can create fatigue in the face of seemingly unstoppable forces. They can also lead to the dismissal of any proposals which fall short of providing a single, catch-all solution – as though value lies only in a silver bullet’. This is the challenge I’ve faced on multiple occasions over the past few months whilst discussing the merits of community-led housing, in particular community land trusts (CLTs).

Community land trusts are a form of community-led housing which hold land collectively in a not-for-profit trust. They allow land to be put to community use by ensuring affordability in perpetuity, which they do by tethering the cost of houses to local income, rather than to the dysfunctional property market.

At NEF, we have advocated for CLTs, as well as community-led housing more broadly. CLTs can take control of the public land which is being sold off across the country to private developers. This land can serve the needs of the community, rather than become yet another site for luxury accommodation which prices out those who need it most. We have also highlighted the critical role they could play in supporting marginalised people to form mutually supportive communities that could tackle inequality and oppression in the domestic environment.

However, as is often pointed out by their critics, it is unlikely that CLTs could function at an economy of scale. The process of setting up a CLT, securing land, and developing housing which answers to community need is long and arduous, and is not best positioned to address the critical shortage of affordable, decent housing.

However, as is often pointed out by their critics, it is unlikely that CLTs could function at an economy of scale.

And beyond the specific model of CLTs, community-led housing in general is not able to meet some of the most critical issues underpinning the housing crisis. With output at its lowest level since records began, there is an urgent need to rapidly increase the supply of social rented housing, and to establish a more secure, affordable private rental sector – challenges which need progressive government policy.

So does this mean that community-led housing is useless? Absolutely not. Building secure and affordable structures does not on its own constitute housing policy: we also need to build communities. We must prevent situations in which communities are isolated and segregated, cut off from essential transport links, proximity to opportunity, and access to green space. Community-led housing provides a model in which community need, not profit, is placed at the centre of planning, and needs beyond simply the provision of shelter are addressed.

An example of this can be found in StART Haringey, a community-led housing initiative that NEF has supported for several years. In their plan to develop on the vast St Ann’s Hospital site in Haringey, they aim to deliver 100% affordable housing, but haven’t stopped there. They have also addressed environmental sustainability through consultation with local and national nature conservation organisations; and health and wellbeing through the provision of allotments, therapeutic gardens and the promotion of cycling and active lifestyles. They have addressed the epidemic of social isolation and the breakdown of communities caused by the aggressive gentrification sweeping across London, through proposing the inclusion of community spaces and commercial units to support local businesses facing competition from giant chains. StART have also ensured that the housing provided includes a variety of types – including single storey accommodation suitable for older residents, family units and sheltered/​supported accommodation – to ensure the community is preserved and is socially mixed. 

Building secure and affordable structures does not on its own constitute housing policy: we also need to build communities.

The Rural Urban Synthesis Society (RUSS) in Lewisham is a similar example. A self-build scheme, one of the key principles of RUSS is to create opportunities for training in building and organising for local residents. Another guiding principle is to reduce harmful neighbourhood impacts to the environment through energy efficiency and sustainable building materials. The homes they are building will be entirely non-market: of the 33 dwellings on their Church Grove site in Lewisham, five will be social rent (with nominations from Lewisham council) and two will be affordable rent, with the remainder split between shared ownership and shared equity homes – creating the conditions for the mixed communities that gentrification so destructively prevents.

Meanwhile, NEF has catalysed and supported the birth of a new community land trust shortly to be formally registered by residents of Aston and Nechells in Birmingham. The group, made up predominantly of working class residents of the area, is currently in discussions with the council and is in the process of working out its legal and democratic structure. Already, however, its community-led method of working has given those involved real ownership over the group’s aims and over what happens to their community. 

Examples like these show how community-led housing projects can provide a model for more holistic, meaningful and impactful housing policy. What’s more, through giving community consultation an integral role in planning, they also show the necessity of elevating the voices of community residents. In the wake of the Grenfell fire tragedy, where community voices were criminally devalued, moves like these towards greater democracy in the housing and planning sector are urgently needed.

While there is particular interest in community land trusts right now, this model represents just one opportunity for community voices to inform more progressive housing policy. The prominence of community engagement in these developments could advocate for greater community input in social housing planning, or amplify tenants’ voices in the rapidly growing private rented sector. Community-led proposals for public land sites are not dependent on the formation of CLTs: local authorities could be guided by these when embarking on the mass social house building which is so desperately needed – although government policy makes this very difficult. Beyond their potential impact in answering to local housing need, successful community-led developments provide a template and an inspiration for planning and building which addresses community need way beyond building shelter.

Getting housing policy right is critical in addressing a multitude of social ills. Community-led housing provides an invaluable guide to getting things right.