Learning from the 1970s and 1980s Small Heath Co-operatives: Lessons for Community-led housing today

By Maddy Bunker

As a second year undergraduate on the Housing and Communities Pathway, I am undertaking a placement in Redditch Co-operative Homes. I am particularly looking at the aim of the co-op to develop some Mutual Home Ownership housing in Wednesfield. I started this placement with limited understanding of co-operative housing in the UK and was very pleased to take the opportunity to attend a lunchtime Housing and Communities Group seminar on the history of co-operative housing in the Midlands.

The speakers both had a very longstanding involvement in the sector. Jon Stevens was a former director of Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services and Alan Clawley was one of the first residents of Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative, where he still lives. They gave presentations on the history of co-operative housing. Jon started from the first building society that was set up in 1775. This was a mutual organisation and was created as a means to fund the building of houses for the members of the society. He made an interesting distinction about social housing during the inter-war years, dividing it into: Philanthropic housing associations; Self-help co-operative housing and Municipal, Local Authority housing.

The sixties was a time of public disquiet and protest with a critique of post-war planning that was concerned with the destruction of communities. It was also a time of changing Government priorities regarding the country becoming a property owning democracy. There were several co-operative housing experiments in the sixties such as co-ownership and intermediate housing, and it was also a time of squatting and self-help co-ops. It was in the 1970s that the first co-operative housing strategy was implemented, with housing minister Reg Freeson, who was very supportive of co-operative housing and a specialist national agency, the Co-operative Housing Agency, was established to promote co-ops. The aim was to support funding and development of co-op housing. Birmingham’s six Small Heath Co-operatives are an important legacy of that era.

In Birmingham during the 1970s, urban renewal was promoted by the city council as an alternative to clearance and co-operative housing was seen as a way to acquire and rehabilitate poor quality private rented housing and as an alternative to large-scale council housing. Alan spoke about how the Small Heath co-ops came to be set up in a part of Birmingham just beyond the large-scale clearance areas where residents were concerned about possible demolition of their homes. The emergence of urban renewal policies in the city provided an opportunity for something different. He felt that the key strength of co-op housing was community cohesion and gave the example that you ‘only have to walk 20 yards to get things done’ such as sorting out repairs.

It was interesting to hear from Alan about how co-operative housing was communicated to the public in those days. Instead of attempting to explain how the co-operative housing model works, they talked to residents of Small Heath about the need to improve their homes and how this could be done, resulting in people wanting to get involved. There was money to buy properties from private owners, improve them and then rent out to the same tenants on a co-operative basis. I consider that at the present time, it can seem complicated to explain co-op housing and even more so to explain Mutual Home Ownership to prospective tenants. It seems a useful step in the communication of co-operative housing to inform the public about how it might meet their housing need rather than becoming bogged down in detailed explanations of mutuality.

By 1985 there was growing resistance from the Housing Corporation to co-ops. They were seen as too resource intensive and the Housing Corporation did not want to fund specialist organisations but generic housing associations. This stopped opportunities for development of co-op housing which wanted to focus on certain areas whilst the Housing Corporation did not want this. The co-ops were also built on a model where the tenants as members ran their own housing. It was viewed by the Housing Corporation that ordinary people did not have the skills to run their housing and by the 1980s, the Housing Corporation would not register new co-operatives. The co-ops also faced the difficulty of fitting in with standardised regulatory requirements and council allocations policy as well as the move from stakeholder to executive models of governance. The 1988 Housing Act limited the role of co-operative housing even more as priority was given to large housing associations that could secure private funding.

Jon spoke about the present day and his belief that co-operative housing is being reinvented, using examples of mutual housing associations, community land trusts and self-help housing. He felt that as we live in ‘generation rent’ when many will not be able to own their own home, co-operative housing may be an option worth serious consideration. Just as in the 1970s, it could present an attractive alternative for people forced to rent and a way of improving housing conditions.

I believe that social housing has much to learn from the co-operative housing sector. Some housing association boards have moved towards a larger scale professional and commercial approach. This has caused the role of tenants to be diminished. In contrast, tenant governance is intrinsic to co-ops. The importance of community for co-operative housing is something that we can learn from today.

I found the presentation very informative and it greatly increased my understanding of co-operative housing in the UK. I am thankful to the Housing and Communities Group for arranging it and particularly grateful to Jon and Alan for the seminar.

Bridging the Gap between Academia and Policy: Reflections on Housing and Communities Seminar 2 – 17 November 2014

Our most recent Housing and Communities Research Network seminar was presented by Dr Darinka Czischke, and was entitled Social Housing Organisations in England and The Netherlands: Between the State, Market and Community, which also happens to be the name of book Darinka has just published. This book is the result of a 6-year PhD study (co-supervised by Prof Vincent Gruis at Delft University and Prof David Mullins at the University of Birmingham) into the ways in which contextual developments impact on the mission, values and activities of social housing organisations in the aforementioned countries.

Darinka Czischke, Honorary Research Fellow, Housing and Communities Research Group

Darinka Czischke, Honorary Research Fellow, Housing and Communities Research Group

Darinka is an honorary research fellow at the Housing and Communities Research Group and an urban and housing specialist with over 15 years’ international experience. She is also the joint coordinator of the working group “Policy and Research” at the European Network for Housing Research (ENHR).  ‘Policy and Research’ was in fact a recurring theme at the seminar, which focused on  the policy and practice implications of the work featured in Darinka’s book, specifically those emerging from findings on the impacts of key regulatory developments on the strategy formulation, role and scope of activities of social housing providers in England and the Netherlands. In England, for example, the impact of the current Coalition government’s welfare reform and the changes to social housing policy and funding since 2010 were explored, while in the Netherlands it was the impact of the Dutch government’s ruling on social housing affecting income limits and the financing of the sector, following the EU decision on state aid to Dutch social housing providers. Both developments have proven to have wide-ranging consequences of on-going importance for the redefinition of the role and scope of social housing providers in two countries with significant social housing sectors in Europe.

From an academic research point of view Darinka’s presentation introduced the practical applicability of the concept of hybridity in a longitudinal study of two large housing associations in the Netherlands and England. Typologies and systems of social housing across Europe are proposed and debated, in the context of state, market and community drivers. Relevant theories are adopted to explore strategic decision-making such as Social Enterprise (Defourny, 2009), Hybridity (Brandsen, 2005; BIllis, 2010), Agency (Giddens, 1979, 1984) and Institutional Entrepreneurship (Di Maggio, 1998; Garuda et al, 2007).

Darinka considers too the relationship between the case study organisations and their policy environment and proposes that rather than passive recipients or recipients of policy, they take on a greater agency role in setting and responding strategically to policy. From a policy point of view evidence on how social housing providers are facing challenges and making decisions on their responses can bear important lessons for other European countries. In particular they can shed light on the impact and use of EC regulations on the redefinition of the role and scope of social housing in member states, as well as how social housing providers in North Western European countries operate in the post-recession environment of widening gaps in provision, the shifting roles and activities of established providers and the emergence of new players.

A week prior to the Housing and Communities Network Seminar, Darinka focused on the same themes at her book launch at the University of Birmingham’s Brussels office, to an audience made up of policy makers and advisers. These common threads were picked up at our November seminar, again to a mixed audience of academics, students and housing professionals. That the underlying messages of the presentation appealed to this dichotomous audience is a testimony to the dual relevance of this research or indeed its ability as a piece of work to bridge the policy/ academia gap.

The need to face in several ways is an underlying aspiration of all the work undertaken by our Housing and Communities Research Group, in which we seek academic rigiour at he same time as relevance and impact to policy and practice.  There is undoubtedly a key role to be played by academic work in informing policy, and organisational responses to policy, thereby positively influencing the debate or policy process through studies and research. Throughout the PhD Darinka and her supervisors interacted with the housing sector in the two countries enabling research to inform strategy and vice versa. This relationship influenced the design of case studies, the choice of strategic decisions for the research to follow and mode of inquiry. During the research it was found that case study actors began to adopt the language of hybridity and critical incidents to make sense of their own experience. Darinka’s forthright presentation and writing highlights the fact that such close engagement need not compromise the independence and critical stance of research but it certainly increases its relevance and potential impact. Let’s have more research that bridges the gap yet remains critical.

Changing Political, Socio-economic and Institutional Landscapes: What are the consequences for housing??

Vanessa Wilkes PhD candidate in Housing and Communities Research Group reflects on this years Housing Studies Association confernece and the implications of the rapidly changing political and econmic context for housing for own her research on why and how Housing Associations measure the impact of their community investment activities.


The timing of this annual Housing Studies Association (HSA) conference could not have been better to encourage reflection and analysis on the social housing sector, the current and future challenges it is facing and the role of governments (past and present) in shaping those changes. The conference took place a few days following the introduction of significant and far reaching changes which present new and lasting challenges for housing organisations and their tenants.  It was also during the week in which Baroness Thatcher died, bringing her legacy which continues to shape the social housing sector, closer to consciousness.

In this paper, I discuss the main themes running throughout the HSA 2013 conference which are of significance to my research. These include the reforms which impact on social housing tenants and the impact which those reforms are having on the sector as a whole.  The paper is structured as follows. After providing a national perspective on these reforms I reflect on the experience of a local housing provider in dealing with these reforms alongside their approach to community investment. Community investment activities within my research are defined broadly as those activities undertaken by housing organisations which are over and above the provision of a home. In the following sections, I introduce the notion of the changing position of the nation state and also reflect on other learning gleaned from the conference as a whole.   Throughout the paper, I reflect on how the discussions provide important insights and additions to my research.

Welfare Reform and the Bedroom Tax

David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, had one overriding message for the conference which he has consistently articulated to ministers. This is that the bedroom tax is unfair, unjust and should be revoked.  In outlining the consequences of the bedroom tax, which he had previously described as “one of these once in a generation decisions that is wrong in every respect” (NHF, 2013), he stressed the need to decouple this cut from Welfare Credit changes which he described as a reform.  This is an interesting divide for me to reflect on.  Interviews for my fieldwork were untaken whilst these changes were in development and they have been spoken about at some length with my interviewees, as a package of reforms.  Together they alter both the financial position of tenants and the housing choices they are able to make, and at the same time impact on the financial situation of organisations and the decisions they make regarding their stock.

Many of the presentations throughout the conference included reference to the legacy of Thatcher’s policies and how they continue to shape the social housing sector reinforced by the ethos of the Coalition Government. Her idea that home ownership was central to a moral and stable family life is echoed in the current Coalition policies which focus on the importance of personal responsibilities (King) and the obsolescence of social housing as both a choice and an entity (Flint). In reflecting on his experience, as Chief Executive of a housing organisation, Dodd spoke of the moral demise in the way in which people in poverty are treated and the underlying message of failure which it inherently contains.

Discussion ensued on whether the social housing sector was able to speak with a coherent voice.  Orr stated that the voice is consistent, but not loud enough.  In defending his view, he argued that although the strategies and activities of housing organisations have diversified, the fundamental mission remains the same. But, I am left contemplating how consistent that voice is in reality and at what level? That fundamental mission is not often explicitly articulated, suggesting  rather an assumption of understanding and agreement.  The breadth of diversification was subsequently expanded upon by Marsh and Gibb who spoke of diversification within the sector in a range of ways which is surely not exhaustive, these include:

  • Organisations which are actively developing housing and seeking to expand their stock;
  • The type of community investment activities which are undertaken, how much is committed to these and how mainstream they are within organisations;
  • The move by some organisations into ‘partly for profit’ housing; and
  • The availability and use of more ‘exotic’ financial products.

During my research over the past two years I have spoken with over 40 housing organisations about their community investment and impact measurement activities and been party to a number of discussions concerning the development of joint measures and outcomes between parties or across the sector. No-one has yet agreed on a joint approach to either of these and, in my view, the debate within the sector as a whole has not progressed to any great extent.  Perhaps that suggests that the provision of housing (in various tenures) maybe the only shared fundamental mission within the sector. Evidence of the variety of activities over and above that fundamental mission makes it very difficult to speak of these hybrid organisations (Sacranie, 2011) as a coherent sector with their very different structures, approaches and underlying ethos.

The transfer of regulatory and legislative responsibility from a national to a local context (Orr) was developed within the presentation by Professor John Flint.  In addressing the retreating state, he spoke about the basis for the nation state shifting, the secession from responsibility by government and the management  of perceptions rather than the macro economy.  I am planning to examine the relevance of this field of literature in relation to my own research as I believe it may provide a more nuanced view in which to analyse the context within which housing organisations are delivery community investment activities.

The impact on localities

In his presentation Kevin Dodd, Chief Executive of Wakefield and District Housing reaffirmed the message which has been consistently vocalised throughout my fieldwork, that government is ‘passporting’ housing and welfare issues down to housing providers at the local level.  Not only is this causing resentment amongst housing tenants who, in many cases, believe their housing providers are introducing these changes and cuts, but it is within a context of a lack of detail and constantly shifting goalposts.

The longer term ramifications of the cuts on both local economies and the work of housing organisations were explored. The £18 million which will be extracted from the welfare state will inevitably decrease spending in the more fragile local economies with Orr stating that “poor people spend, rich people save”, linking this with the negative impact on local businesses.  Alongside this, Dodd stated that his housing organisation will lose £100,000 per week in revenue, an amount equivalent to building a house a week.

As part of the demonstration project into the impact of the recent changes to housing benefit payment, Dodd spoke of the increased pressure which his services had been put under,  requiring  a greater level and depth of support to tenants than previously. His organisation took part in the direct payment pilot and his view was that the advent of direct payments transformed his previous tenants into customers, a move he did not appear to welcome.

Many tenants are beneficiaries of the community investment activities and my research focusses on why and how housing organisations approach the measurement of their social impact.  The combined effects of Welfare Reform and the Bedroom Tax on the income stream and activities of housing organisations leads me to question the on-going commitment which some housing organisations will be able to make to some of these initiatives when their core housing provision may demand more resources against a diminished income stream.

The type of community investment which Dodd outlined in his presentation showed a very different approach to that within my research.  Within my case studies, strategies primarily focus on labour market interventions, be it providing skills or ensuring that commissioned work provides local opportunities. Within these approaches, a direct economic intervention in the local economy does not seem to be as mainstream as aiming to deliver social impact through interventions with individuals. However, in the model described by Dodd, the emphasis is more focused on the consumer and the desire to ‘keep the pound local’ and support the local economy.  Measurement of impact will differ between these two approaches with the latter one, with its focus on supporting the local economy, arguably being more measurable in a more widely recognised financial sense.

Within her seminar presentation, Patricia Jones explored the reframing of community investment activities against the backdrops of workability, affordability, sustainability, measurability and governance. Although the timing of my research does not enable me to draw conclusions relating to this reframing, my data provides me with an indication of the ethos of a housing organisation and a probable trajectory of their community investment activities which I may be able to explore within this framework.   The question Jones raised of whether community investment activities may become increasingly focused on individuals, as opposed to the wider community, is one of the issues which emerged during my fieldwork. I plan to return to that issue within the follow-up interviews which will take place after the introduction of some of the welfare and housing changes.

Challenges for housing organisations

In addition to the main presentation, the seminar programme was wide and varied in its subject areas and a few key areas of learning were gleaned from the sessions which I attended. The uncertainty of the environment both now and post 2015 was seen as one of the issues around the financing of housing by Marsh and Gibb. They also expressed concern at the skillset within housing organisations to deal with the risk and diversity of current and emerging financial products.  The availability of relevant skills is often referred to when the governance of housing organisations is discussed, but it is also highlighted as a problematic issue within my research as an area which is not being fully appreciated and rectified by housing organisations or the wider sector.  The adoption of social impact measurement tools or methodologies in some housing organisations is often ad hoc and reactive  with little attention being given to where such systems or processes are placed within the organisation. In many cases, this has resulted in personnel employed to undertake frontline people focussed work, being given the methodologically challenging task of undertaking impact measurement.  Reference has been made to this within academic literature (Mullins et al, 2011) although it would merit further investigation.


This conference was held at the start of a time of great uncertainty with many references to what the situation may be post 2015. It appears to be the start of a journey which will disrupt the norms of many housing organisations and lead to many challenges.  These challenges will almost inevitably impact on the community investment activities of housing organisations, which is of central interest to my research.

This conference provided me with an invaluable opportunity to reflect on the understanding within which I am analysing my research, including the changing context for community investment activities.  It has also provided numerous insights into how some of that understanding can be refined and deepened.

Vanessa Wilkes

Housing Associations: Challenges and opportunities

Housing associations are beset by paradoxical drivers of challenge and opportunity. There has never been a more testing time for the social housing sector as it is exposed to fast-moving changes on account of the global downturn and subsequent wider socio-economic crisis affecting peoples’ lives at the grassroots. For housing associations as landlords, housing shortages, welfare reform, the bedroom tax and sweeping changes to the benefit system are just some of the challenges they face; together with burgeoning opportunities to work closer with their neighbourhoods encouraged by the community rights and localism agenda. There is mounting demand for housing associations to configure their community investment strategy to maintain a balance between business investment in development as well as social investment in localities.

The Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT) is committed to bringing cutting edge knowledge and targeted support to meet the sector’s need for a community investment strategy that can respond to both challenges and opportunities. This Report explores the role that HACT can play through the lens of four work streams: social impact; social enterprise; local economies and place making.  Although these four work streams might compete for priority, Report findings suggest that cohesive organisational culture; local collaborations, social asset building, co-production and community leadership remain the staple components of effective community investment strategy.

An action-learning approach has long been the hallmark of HACT’s initiatives as a think and do tank promoting participative learning opportunities and creative spaces to embed good practice and share innovation across the social housing sector. Following its re-launch in 2012, HACT’s new business is taking shape and HACT’s involvement with the knowledge transfer partnership process and how the learning from the Third Sector Research Centre across a broad spectrum of research work is being better understood. The relationship has gathered pace and a series of TSRC/HACT Round Tables together with housing practitioners has been organised for 2013 as part of the Housing and Communities Network at the University of Birmingham. The Report demonstrates how the KTP process ensures that academic research finds meaningful practical application through HACT’s programme and activities to the benefit of the social housing sector as a whole.

Dr Tricia Jones

Supporting Peabody Communities: A fresh approach to antisocial behaviour

No Solutions that are not shared solutions

A team from the University of Birmingham led by Dr Chris Allen and Ozlem Ogtem Young have recently evaluated current approaches to Antisocial behaviour (ASB) and community safety by, Peabody, the large London based housing organisation created by an endowment from George Peabody 150 years ago.  The report is now available on the Peabody website . This blog reflects on some of the things I learned as a member of the evaluation team.

There seems little doubt that ASB is a pressing problem for housing providers like Peabody. Reading Peabody’s impressive 21st Century Peabody vision and latest Business Plan it is difficult to see how this could be delivered without effective action on ASB. People cannot feel a full sense of belonging or feel part of the wider local community when they fear or experience behaviour that leads to ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. For those of us who see a wider role for housing providers than simply bricks and mortar the case for action to prevent and respond to ASB seems hard to refute.

Yet there are widely different views about why this is the case and what are the limits of the remit or capacity of housing providers to respond to or to influence it.  The tendency to include very different types of problem with palpably different solutions and responsible agencies within the umbrella term ASB does not help. Certainly there are higher expectations of housing providers than their current capacity to deliver, and even where they do identify and take appropriate action residents are not always aware of these actions and rarely feel ownership for them. Not surprisingly therefore perceptions of ASB and of actions against it receive almost as much attention in this report as the actions themselves.

The ability of housing providers to act alone is questionable and necessarily limited. This report shows the importance of co-production of effective responses to ASB. Since residents’ perceptions are a key part of the problem, ASB will not be resolved without collaboration with residents in its resolution. Simon Yau, an academic visitor from Hong Kong helped us to understand the ways in which housing provider and resident led responses can interact to co-produce effective and sustainable responses. Moreover, as a classic ‘wicked problem’ ASB will not be conquered without joined up working by housing, criminal justice, youth work and other local partners.  Such joined up working can be most effective in concrete projects with a shared purpose such as the Race Equality Foundation ‘Parenting Facilitators’ project which one local authority participant in our study told us about.

I learned much by being part of the research team and gaining privileged access to the views of residents, staff and leading national experts such as the Chartered Institute of Housing ASB Team,  the Social Landlords Crime and Nuisance Group and Housemark whose invaluable mapping of ASB and responses provides a national context for this work. The tenacity required by victims of serious ASB to withstand appalling threats and demand responses from housing providers and other agencies was movingly demonstrated by a resident board member who spoke at the roundtable. This convinced me further that there will be ‘no solutions that are not shared solutions’ based on deeper understanding between residents, landlords and partner agencies.

Peabody is to be congratulated for supporting this research and unearthing the extent of difference in key actors’ views of the nature of ASB and the effectiveness of responses. Now is the time for new approaches to galvanise the deep commitment that many of those actors have to resolving the multiple problems that fall under the umbrella term ASB . There needs to be much greater sharing of information and building of understanding between those actors so that residents can take responsibility alongside housing staff and other local agencies for programmes that not only respond to and resolve incidents, but genuinely prevent and divert the problematic behaviour that underlies ASB. Community Investment initiatives must be part of this since true ‘early intervention’ is about creating the conditions for alternative behaviours by potential perpetrators by meeting their needs for meaningful activity. The £750 million that housing associations invest each year in community activities to promote jobs and training, learning and skills, health and well-being and stronger communities[1] is surely part of ‘early intervention’. It is therefore encouraging that HouseMark is planning to begin to assess the impact of these activities on ASB, rather than simply counting the cost of more reactive (but essential) responses to incidents after they occur.

The report includes findings and recommendations that are relevant to most housing organisations. So what are the key lessons from my perspective? First and foremost housing organisations need to think – ‘what can we do together, that we could not do alone’? Listen to residents and give them the authority to share information and power. Work with partners collaboratively by focussing more on what can we each do better together rather than who to blame and who can claim the credit for successes. Be clearer about the different types of ASB and appropriateness of different solutions. And finally invest in communities since prevention is always better than cure.

David Mullins

Professor of Housing Policy

April 19th 2013

[1] National Housing Federation (2012) Building Futures – Neighbourhood Audit Summary and Key Findings.