Last February I became Wales’ first Cohousing Officer, attached to Powys County Council but working within the Wales Co-operative Centre’s Communities Creating Homes (opens new window) programme. At the time I was the only person in the UK employed by a local authority to help groups create cohousing projects. I had 2.5 days per week for a year to introduce the concept and help groups get started.
It takes several years for cohousing groups to move from initial idea to unpacking the crockery. For someone on a one-year contract this is a problem. Especially when there are no easy models to follow and few leaders in the UK to act as mentors. Much of my work then has been making the garden and sowing the seeds. It’s impossible to say when the harvest will come in.
"Communities can relieve pressure on social services by offering some mutual aid and increase the conviviality of their own lives."Why Powys? It’s a good question. Most new-build cohousing projects are urban. Powys is one of the least populated counties in the UK. My post was part-funded by the Integrated Care Fund (ICF), which aims to help housing, care and health care professionals innovate together. In many respects Senior Cohousing (for the 50 plus age group) fits this type of fund well. It can extend the length of time people are able to stay in their own home by providing informal care and by reducing isolation (known to be detrimental to health). Communities can relieve pressure on social services by offering some mutual aid and increase the conviviality of their own lives.
Demographics support the need for innovation. The average age of Powys residents is five years older than the UK average. Over the next 15 years Powys will experience a 38% increase in the number of people over the age of 65 and a 139% increase in those aged over 80. Many will live alone. It makes sense to see whether cohousing can help Powys County Council deliver better homes for its ageing population. Something which fits in with its overall health and care strategy.
Whilst I found significant interest in and support for cohousing amongst both council employees and the groups who might benefit from it, much of the practical support needed to make it happen does not exist. Most of the ICF capital funding, for example, has already been allocated to extra care housing facilities. These meet a different need and do not offer resident autonomy and self-determination, an essential part of cohousing, in the same way.
If cohousing is to be developed alongside older age care delivery, as informal care to keep people in a supportive home community for longer, then we need to put into place the systems that will help people develop them.
What would these look like?
Firstly, we need to encourage the housing conversations the Dutch government offers its citizens when they reach 50. Make it common place to talk about options and strategies for the third age. Next, groups need easy access to finance, land and skills, as well as dedicated support throughout the life of a project. One year posts such as mine are interesting but not sustainable. Thirdly, the support needs to come from business, government and organisations like ourselves in a coordinated way, like it does in Berlin and Denmark for example. We are working with our partners to deliver this in Wales but have some way to go.
"If cohousing is to be developed alongside older age care delivery, as informal care to keep people in a supportive home community for longer, then we need to put into place the systems that will help people develop them."One further major obstacle for groups in Powys is planning. Many of the enquiries I had in my first year came from multi-generational cohousing projects where the members wanted access to land. Most land in Powys is classified as ‘open country’, and therefore next to impossible to build on. Even using One Planet Development (opens new window) planning rules (only available in Wales) or the rural exception site planning protocol (intended primarily for housing associations and local authorities to build affordable homes).
There are options for groups to buy land within permitted development zones but these do not help those groups who would like to farm as part of a cohousing project, converting and extending smallholdings and farm houses, in planning terms a very difficult proposition.
A community planning protocol might ease local authority fears of rural sprawl by allowing smaller schemes where they help wider community resilience. In the meantime groups may find it easier to renovate, following the model set out by Dol Llys housing coop (opens new window) 30 years ago. Ironically there are a number of empty care homes in mid-Wales requiring a new lease of life.
The Wales Co-operative Centre is supported by Welsh Government and the Nationwide Foundation. Read their recent report on the potential benefits of living in co-operative/community led housing on the Housing LIN’s dedicated Welsh webpages on latest research and good practice (opens new window).
And, visit the Powys cohousing project’s website (opens new window) for more information on their project.