Cohousing plus: Widening the housing choices for people with a learning disability

Frances Wright
Frances Wright
Director of UK Cohousing Network and working for co-housing developer, TOWN

My 70 year old neighbour slipped off her bike during the recent cold snap and was taken to hospital with a badly broken leg. Piles of food supplies accompanied her in the hospital, get-well cards were signed and sent, daily communication took place via our Marmalade Lane group chat, and when she was discharged, a neighbour came to pick her up and bring her home.

Back at Marmalade Lane, a rota has been organised to ensure my neighbour has warm meals throughout the day as she's recovering - cooking for one more is no extra effort and it can go a long way for someone else. Everyone is able to chip in in different ways - there are volunteers for helping with cleaning and shopping.  One household has sourced an electric chair on loan so she is able to get around the garden which she loves. She is doing well and believes the support of the community is helping her recovery. Hopefully in six weeks’ time she will be able to bear some weight on her leg and really start on the journey to recovery. The Marmalade Lane community will be there to help and provide the support that's needed. 

As highlighted by my neighbour’s experience, cohousing communities - such as Marmalade Lane - are intentional communities where residents choose to be part of a community and live in a more neighbourly and collaborative way.  Designed to support sociability, communities typically have a shared garden and a ‘common house’ where residents can meet, eat and socialize together.  Cohousing communities are a form of community-led housing, residents are typically involved in the design of their community and go on to collectively manage it.

The housing crisis has led to cohousing groups partnering with registered providers to offer social and affordable housing or pursuing innovative models like mutual home ownership to make sure their communities once built will be affordable to as many people as possible. Bridport Cohousing, for instance, is now being built and will be a 100% affordable scheme and YorSpace in York will be a form of mutual home ownership.

Communities are also becoming more diverse: as the Housing LIN have championed, the Older Women’s Co-Housing pioneered the way with New Ground in London. And as featured in the Housing LIN virtual Summit 2020, Still Green Cohousing is following in their footsteps with a mixed-sex community for over 50s as part of enabling developer TOWN’s regeneration of Wolverton town centre, part of Milton Keynes.  In addition, L&Q is supporting London Older Lesbian Cohousing with a cohousing scheme in North East London. 

In discussion with the Housing LIN’s Jeremy Porteus and the LIN’s work on innovative housing options for people with a learning disability or autism, a newer phenomenon - still to be realised in practice - is cohousing groups that are seeking to include housing provision for adults with learning difficulties. I am aware that Harrow Cohousing and Angel Yard in Norwich have both expressed interest.  Angel Yard has land in central Norwich and is about to enter the design phase ready for planning so there is a real window of opportunity to make this happen. How social care is commissioned and funded and how housing, planning and development works present some practical challenges especially in a non-unitary authority context but none of these challenges are insurmountable where there is the will to do so.

Being part of the cohousing community at Marmalade Lane and having had a background in adult social care, I can testify to the opportunities cohousing provides through offering a rich, social and meaningful life within a network of interest and concern. Cohousing cannot replace formal care and support needs but it can provide the benefits of a supportive environment enabling a more independent life along with a social network that is better able to respond in a crisis. In the words of the Older Women’s Co-Housing group: “community life is not about looking after each other rather it's about looking out for each other”. With this in mind, I am in no doubt that cohousing and a supportive community can provide a realistic housing alternative for people with a learning disability and their families. We need to move beyond the welcome expressions of interest and urgently find ways how we can widen the housing choices for people with a learning disability.  

Frances Wright lives in Marmalade Lane Cohousing Community in Cambridge, is a director of UK Cohousing Network and works for co-housing developer TOWN.

If you found this of interest, check out other relevant resources on cohousing and community-lead housing curated by the Housing LIN on our dedicated webpages.

And, to access more information on transforming the housing, care and support for adults with learning disabilities or autism, visit our dedicated webpages.

Lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can support you develop your housing for older people strategic vision and/or operational plans to meet the future accommodation needs of older adults, please email us at:


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