Decision-making in Mandorla Co-housing group

cropped-mandorla-strip I am a member of Mandorla, which is a co-housing group in Herefordshire. The UK Co-housing Network defines co-housing as housing

“…created and run by their residents. Each household has a self-contained, personal and private home….residents come together to manage their community, share activities, eat together. Cohousing is a way of combating the isolation many experience today, recreating the neighbourly support of the past…”

We linked up with a local passivhaus architect called Architype. They in turn set up a development company called Archihaus. Archihaus secured planning permission for a development of 150 dwellings in a village called Kingstone, some six miles west of Hereford, on the way to the Golden Valley and to Hay on Wye. Mandorla hopes to occupy the first 21 of those dwellings, together with a common house which Archihaus will build for us, where we can have meals together, run activities and courses, supply guest accommodation, and so on.

chalice-wellWorking with Archihaus has many advantages – we didn’t have to apply for planning permission ourselves, for example. It also brings its frustrations. Three years on from that planning permission being granted, Archihaus are still negotiating the funding and no work has begun on the site. As a result, most people who might be interested in Mandorla find the situation too uncertain to sign up, and we remain a small, slightly beleaguered, group.

The rest of this blog describes one of our biggest decisions. Five of our dwellings will be for rent, with the rents at an affordable level. We had to decide how to manage these. Our first step came in August 2013, when a group of us visited Cwm Harry, which describes itself as “a successful provider of practical environmental services and an innovative ‘Do Think’ tank developing commercial solutions for sustainable livelihoods lived locally.” Quoting from the minutes of our next meeting: “Everyone who went to the community garden was extremely impressed – great permaculture emphasis, very sustainable, inclusive, and non capitalist . Very impressed too with Paul Taylor (our main contact) – positive, good principles & actions.” At that point, Cwm Harry was a community land trust charity, and a cooperative with eight offshoot groups including Robert Owen, a community bank. It was not at that stage a housing association, which we needed to work with in order to access the funding for the affordable rented units. However, Paul had alreay proposed to the Cwm Harry board that they became a registered housing provider – the current jargon for a housing association. Our housing consultant, Jimm Reed, thought that the benefits of partnership with Cwm Harry outweighed the risks. We agreed to explore it further.

circleswithincirclesHowever, in December 2013 we started to have doubts. We had originally had the clear impression that Cwm Harry would return the freeholds of the five properties to us once the mortgages were paid off, but in December we were told that that would not happen. We wondered if we could register as a housing provider ourselves, and get some help to manage the five units. We came across an organisation called Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services (BCHS), which offered to fulfil that role.

In February 2014 we discussed the services that we would want BCHS to do for us. In April, we first discussed the comparison between the two alternatives. The table below shows how opinion evolved between April and the point at which we came to a decision, in September. What is striking is how complete the turnaround is.

2014

April

June

August

September

Cwm Harry

4

4

0

0

Be our own housing provider with BCHS

1

3

7

7

50/50 or undecided

1

2

3

0

The reason for that turnaround was evident in July, when as an aid to our decision-making we discussed what our criteria were. The top three, listed below, all pointed away from Cwm Harry and towards going it alone, with help from BCHS:

  • 11 votes – We knew we would be in control of our own processes, procedures and rules without outside interference (Risk: if we work with an external body they might impose rules on us.).
  • 8 votes – Any organisation we choose to work with has a strong track record in housing management (Risk: otherwise we may have to put up with their steep learning curve – and what if they decide later it’s not their thing after all?) .
  • 8 votes – We have long term control over the tenancy agreements (Risk: without this the tenants may not have full security).

What strikes me now, looking back, is how thorough we were in terms both of the length of time we gave it, and also our preparation. At the September meeting we provided everyone with a four page briefing that included: the full set of criteria; a comparison between the two choices; FAQs e.g. the work involved in becoming a registered provider; and an evaluation by our project manager. Mind you, those whose projects are now complete tell us that as time goes by they had to make more decisions, in less time, with less information. That should be fun….

Perry

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