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Lets Stick Together

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Let’s stick together

Communal living has had a bad press recently. In many towns, locals fear the relentless expansion of university students HMOs. But co-living need no longer be like ‘The Young Ones’. Serena Ralston reports on the wisdom of the collective

Whether as an antidote to loneliness, punitive property prices or poor-quality HMOs (houses of multiple occupation), communal living, in its various guises, is a growing phenomenon.

It’s nothing new, of course. In the medieval European village it was common for people to share a household with friends and extended family. The industrial age brought with it a focus on the nuclear family as the ideal unit, and housing followed. The 1960s counterculture saw a flirtation with communes; somewhere in there, too, has been the growth of houses of multiple occupation (HMOs).

But there may be another revolution in the air as developers and communities reinvent communal living for the 21st century in the form of large co-living spaces and smaller co-housing communities.

The UK Cohousing Trust defines a co-housing community as intentional, created and run by its residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Co-housing communities range in size from around 10 to around 40 households. 

In contrast, the world’s largest co-living space, Old Oak in London, run by The Collective, has 550 rooms. Co-living, as identified by property consultancy JLL and the British Property Federation, is a purpose-built and managed development that includes a combination of personal and shared amenity space.

It is aimed particularly at younger people who may be struggling to find affordable accommodation and who may well be used to the communal atmosphere of university halls accommodation. 

“Younger people are much more used to a shared world – whether it’s Airbnb, co-working or co-living – and private space is becoming shared and monetised,” says Philip Hillman, chairman, living, at JLL. “They are more chilled about renting and like being in a ‘buzzy’ environment.”

A challenge to planning?

The precursor to The Collective was a student lettings agency launched 10 years ago by Reza Merchant, then a student at London School of Economics, which became The Collective in 2010. The Financial Times reported last autumn that The Collective’s management bought the 75 per cent of Old Oak in north-west London it did not already own in a deal valuing it at about £125 million.

In May, the business will open its second space, with 700 rooms in Canary Wharf. Stratford in East London may follow. While there are no official statistics on co-living in the UK, the focus is London, and big players are hovering – property data company EGi reported last year that co-working giant WeWork’s subsidiary WeLive had submitted plans for a site near Old Street Roundabout, EC1. Roam, the international co-living network will open a space in London this year, having already tested the market with a leased property.

This expansion of co-living presents a challenge to the planning system: should it have its own use class (it is currently sui generis)? What is the difference between an HMO and a small co-living development? What about space standards? Affordable housing contributions? What’s an acceptable ratio of rooms to facilities?

To answer such questions, the Greater London Authority (GLA) has created Policy H18 ‘Large-scale purpose-built shared living’ in the Draft London Plan. This sets out various stipulations, including that a scheme should meet an identified need; be under single management; the units should be for rent with minimum tenancy lengths of no less than three months; and the minimum communal facilities and services to be provided. To qualify, the development must be of at least 50 units and private units must demonstrably not be C3 dwelling house accommodation.

“The Draft London Plan provides a clear policy position for co-living projects to be progressed through the planning process and allows for transparency and regulation of the sector,” says James Penfold, planning and zoning director for The Collective.

“Things have really turned a corner as the co-living sector comes of age, and the boroughs we are working with and the GLA are generally very positive about engaging with how co-living can come forward.”

A note of caution

The RTPI, which contributed to the consultation on the policy and the wider Draft London Plan, has adopted a more cautious tone. 

“Members felt it important that development follows trends in living, and co-living could make a contribution in certain circumstances,” explains Tom Kenny, policy officer. “Some of the schemes such as Old Oak look like good innovations. However, there is significant concern that schemes like this could be a way of getting away with lower housing standards such as micro flats which defy space standards.”

Daisy Onubogu, head of community at Roam, calls for a revision of use classes to accommodate this new approach to housing: “The new policy is a big step in the right direction, but still unnecessarily limited in scope,” she observes, adding: “Spaces featuring much fewer units than The Collective seem to fall outside.

“The three-month minimum would also somewhat exclude offerings like ours. We would hope to see either a significant expansion of the C4 (HMO) class, or a new one to accommodate this emerging form of residential accommodation that cuts across the characteristics of both a hotel and a dwelling house.” 

Penfold notes that Hackney, Lambeth and Westminster are bringing in draft shared living policies. Some are also looking for onsite affordable housing, as well as offsite contributions, in shared living schemes. At Old Oak, 30 per cent of the rooms are available at a discount market rate, which are marketed at local people and key workers first – an approach the company says it will continue elsewhere.

From co-living to co-housing

Schemes are springing up outside London, too. In Brighton and Hove, an area with a severe housing shortage, Coliving Spaces has opened eight spaces – a mix of standard houses converted under permitted development into six rooms with social spaces, and larger commercial buildings divided into shared living and apartments.

Founder Stuart Scott says: “Policy tends to be HMO policy, but HMOs have a bad name and aren’t reflective of new co-living. We would welcome working alongside planning departments to identify new ways to provide modern co-living and to preserve houses for families.”

In Bristol, the council and United Communities, a local housing association, are working together on a new type of co-living scheme to be located in a surplus council car park on a 10-year lease.

LaunchPad, aimed at students, key workers and young people moving on from supported accommodation, uses modular apartments that are relocatable. Its 31-bed apartments include communal space and laundry facilities, and the pilot scheme gives its young residents access to university facilities and support.

“What we are trying to do here hasn’t been done before,” says Oona Goldsworthy, chief executive of United Communities. “We know that we will need everyone to be flexible in imagining a new way of living which may challenge existing planning policies. If this is successful, we can see that others will be interested in using the model to provide modular housing on meanwhile sites, such as homes for keyworkers on NHS land.” 

LaunchPad’s residents play an active role in managing the scheme – in which respect it begins to cross over with co-housing, as opposed to co-living. Self-management is central to the co-housing ethos, which is growing in popularity, according to The UK Cohousing Network. Currently there are 21 listed established communities; 38 listed as developing projects and 11 listed groups forming memberships.

The most common form of co-housing is intergenerational, but senior co-housing is the fastest-growing type. It is becoming easier to develop a scheme, thanks to more money from the government’s Community Housing Fund and more advisers around the country. 

The UK Cohousing Network says that the planning system can accommodate co-housing but it needs the collaboration of co-housing groups, local councils and technical advisers to help councils think of co-housing as an option in local plans.

There is little specific policy. Although the London Housing Strategy has a target “to identify a pipeline of community-led housing schemes with capacity to deliver at least 1,000 homes”, the Draft London Plan simply includes a definition of community-led housing, and mentions it in the context of the Small Sites Policy H2.

Levent Kerimol, project director of Community Led Housing London, calls this  ‘passive policy’, of which there are a number of examples across the country. CLH London is calling for a new policy specifically on community-led housing to encourage boroughs to work positively and collaboratively to identify and allocate appropriate sites for community-led housing.

It is clear that communal living, in many forms, is here to stay. If planning can grasp this, it has a positive part to play.   

Serena Ralston is a freelance journalist specialising in planning and the built environment

This article first appeared in The Planner magazine in January 2019 and is reproduced with permission www.theplanner.co.uk .


Case study 1: Co-living: The Collective, Old Oak, West London. 

Opened in 2016, The Collective Old Oak has 546 en suite rooms with private bathrooms, some having a private kitchenette. Three, six and 12-month contracts offer monthly rents ranging from £850 to £1,250 inclusive of bills. There is a 24-hour concierge, fortnightly linen change, cleaning, gym membership and co-working membership. Small rooms are offset by plentiful communal facilities including gym, library, communal dining areas and kitchens, cinema room and restaurant. An events programme includes yoga, cookery and a coding club. 


Case study 2: Co-housing: LILAC, Leeds

Low Impact Living Affordable Community, (LILAC) is a co-housing community of 20 eco-build households in west Leeds. The homes and land are managed by residents through a ‘mutual home ownership society’, a financial model that guarantees permanent affordability. LILAC started in 2006 with five residents interested in building their own homes so they could live and bring up their children in a different way. Building began in 2012 and comprises straw bale houses and blocks of flats, a central ‘common house’ (with shared post room, kitchen, dining room, multifunction rooms, office, workshop and laundry facilities), bike sheds, a pond, allotments, communal gardens and play area.


Definitions

Use class C3 Dwelling houses Allows for groups of up to six people to live together as a single household. Aimed at groups that do not fall within the C4 HMO definition.

Use class C4 Houses in multiple occupation covers shared houses occupied by up to six unrelated individuals who share basic amenities. Larger HMOs are sui generis and require planning permission.

National space standards A single bedroom, single-storey dwelling with bedspace for one person should have a minimum gross internal floor area of 39 square metres. With bedspace for two people, that should be 50 sq m.

London Plan policy H18 Large-scale purpose-built shared living See: bit.ly/planner0119-shared


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