Let me start at the beginning and, in particular, the title of this blog, and even more specifically, the word homes and not housing. Almshouses are, first and foremost, homes for local people in their local area run by locals. I am truly surprised that The Archers does not have a courtyard of them, tucked away next to the village green as they are an exemplar model of enduring low-cost community homes often for the older local population.
And, as recognised in the recent RIBA publication on age-friendly housing, with an enviable record going back 1000 years, these historic charities are scattered amongst most market towns across the length and breadth of the UK and are still true to their cause. There are at least 35,000 of them within England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Almshouses may not be the answer to meeting large-scale housing demand but they are at the head of the pack when it comes to providing a sustainable and social solution to meet the central tenets of the National Planning Policy Framework (opens new window) (NPPF). The model has been encouraged within the recommendations of the APPG’s on housing and care for older people Rural HAPPI 4 Inquiry (April 2018) under the chairmanship of Lord Best and acknowledged by HRH The Prince of Wales in the Whiteley Foundation for Ageing Well (opens new window) report as oases where residents live longer than expected.
With the population of over 75’s set to double over the next 20 years (according to the Office of National Statistics) and the 2015 study on the views and experiences of people over 50 by the Centre for Ageing Better (opens new window) demonstrating that a happier later life depends upon such things as good relationships, sense of purpose and an affordable decent home, then the almshouse model can tick the boxes.
One of the distinctions between almshouses and other low-cost housing is the difference between charity and not-for-profit. Almshouse providers are charities and, as such, have an element of independence and flexibility that allows the trustees to respond with and apply the human touch when addressing beneficiary matters. The buildings, usually locally gifted, are run by local people for local people and accountable on a local basis. In other words, localism at its best.
Almshouses are held as permanent endowment exclusively to meet the charity’s purpose such as relief of poverty or infirmity. The homes are occupied under licence by a qualified beneficiary who may be required to contribute to maintaining the homes. Regulation is through the Charity Commission and for those registered providers, through Homes England. It is the fact that local trustees hold the properties on trust for the future that ensures this type of housing is not at the mercy of politics or the whim of a Minister. A strength of this model is that a change in government will not change the charitable regulatory habitat that the trustees operate within. Almshouses are exempt from the Right to Buy offering new and old benefactors to leave a truly lasting legacy.
There are other distinctive characteristics of almshouses and it is these that often find their way into the heart of the community. The governing document usually states that beneficiaries must be drawn from a specific geographical area or to have worked within specific employment (such as the local factory). There is often a requirement for the residents to show particular care and consideration to each other (the design of almshouses can promote this) and, in many cases, the residents know each other or are acquainted through “belonging” to that specific geographical place or employment.
Cementing that belonging still further is the visual connection almshouses often make to their local surroundings. Many are of strong vernacular design, especially the historic ones. Familiar and distinctive local design allows local people, including residents, to connect to the place created. It is no accident that many almshouses are set within a courtyard or along three-sides of a square, they are designed physically (and through their governing deeds) to encourage interaction, belonging, peace and well-being. In the Netherlands, where the movement is said to have begun, there is an acknowledgement that such design allows residents to interact with and look out for each other - any disagreements will need addressing as you walk through a shared and intimate entrance way. Homes not just housing.
So what lies ahead for this enduring charitable low-cost way of providing homes? Almshouses need to be recognised by the Government as a local solution to a local problem which, when repeated on a national scale could provide a significant answer to a national crisis. The model needs a clear definition allowing for its own classification within the corridors of Westminster, something the Almshouse Association is currently promoting. The resulting clarity, higher profile and wider awareness is essential to ensure that the concept of an almshouse is understood and accepted not just by the politicians but also by the public as an answer to the future (they are so often, and mistakenly, only viewed through the lens of history).
Longevity for the next 1000 years lies not just with looking after the existing but developing new. The trick, it seems is to start the process at a local scale with new benefactors from a variety of sources. Most Parish and Town Councils will be familiar with the lack of low-cost housing for older people within their patch. New almshouses depend upon a willing benefactor and a willing group of trustees who, together, would be in a strong position to meet the three over-arching requirements of the NPPF to provide decent, low-cost homes in perpetuity for a specific group of people within a specific locally defined area. It is important to think of future benefactors in today’s world – they do not have to be the characteristic landowner of yesteryear, although the growing landowner legacy movement could be a very helpful starting point especially if a piece of land centrally located within a market town was gifted. Socially minded companies or those with a large budget for corporate social responsibility could do worse than consider investing in housing for those in need especially where the housing can be exclusively provided for a particular group of beneficiaries (one of the central defining characteristics of the almshouse model).
In addition, there are a growing number of community-led initiatives, which, either in partnership with an existing local almshouse charity or by creating a new entity, could provide a modest group of almshouses. It is, perhaps, true to say that the income return from maintenance contributions would be unlikely to justify the initial capital outlay of building new, but the new trustees could depend upon that income (often at housing benefit level) for maintaining the buildings. For the initial capital we need to look to businesses and entrepreneurs and be creative with partnerships and joint ventures. Another possibility is to use the s106 planning contributions held by local authorities for low-cost housing provision, money that would have been given by a developer of open-market housing upon receipt of a planning permission. Accessing these resources would be easier if the Government acknowledged almshouses as enduring providers of low-cost housing in their own right.
To be sustainable the almshouse model should be free from too much government interference and remember its charitable roots. This independence has allowed the model success for a millennium. To take funding only from government schemes may compromise the long-term independence of the trustees. Think of the difference between the hospice movement and the NHS. They both provide healthcare but the independence of the former, as a charity, allows it to be small-scale, local, bespoke and individual-centred. So it is for charitable almshouses. We must think for ourselves and choose our resources carefully.
The almshouse model is ready to meet a local demand as it has done for a millennium. It’s about time we shouted about it.
Thanks to the Housing LIN for giving us this opportunity to have this voice!