Housing for our communities

Do you have that feeling that the housing market isn’t quite working? That developers are making money but communities don’t benefit much? Community land trusts are one way that communities are taking back the power over their housing. I spoke with Charlie from Oxfordshire Community Land Trust about their work and their latest campaign to create affordable housing in Oxford.

A community land trust protects land and property assets and makes them affordable for the community, whether it be for work, housing or leisure.

Their legal structures could be Industrial and Provident Societies for the Benefit of the Community, Community Interest Companies, Charitable Trusts or Companies Limited by Guarantee, but the principles are the same – ensure that assets benefits the community and not outside companies.

In Oxford at the moment Homes for Oxford, another community group is working with the trust to fundraise for their own housing development. You can learn more and donate to the work here.

What are some of the ties that hold us down and prevent us from living a life that we believe in, a life that benefits those around us and makes us feel fulfilled? For many people the answer is simply needing to pay the bills, being caught in a cycle of work to pay the rent. If we can remove the wealth extractors from our housing market we have a chance to create housing that benefits our communities, and helps give people more freedom to do what they think is right.

 

Welcome to La ZAD

The ZAD (Zone A Defendre or Zone to Defend) in France is variously described as an occupation, a no-go area of radical militants, a resistance community, and the proposed second airport for Nantes.  During my first visit to La ZAD I explored some of the reasons that people have made this beautiful place their home.

Cycling or driving into La ZAD you may be unaware that you have entered it but after a time you may come to a signpost which no longer has a place name, but instead has ‘ZAD’ spray painted pointing in each direction. Or you may come across a road with artistic barricades, a burnt out car with plants growing through it, or damaged tarmac. Whilst now, all is peaceful farmland, gardens and communities of hand-built houses, it’s clear that something big happened here a few years ago. If you want to orientate yourself and begin to explore this special place, the best place to start is La Rolandiere.

ZAD map

 

The approximately 1600 Ha of the zone is a place of creativity and independence, of living on the margins and finding a way to make it work. People build knowing that in the future the police and airport will try to tear it down, to build an airport next to another one which is only at 30% capacity. Some of the farms use machinery whilst others use only hand tools. Some choose the way they live for ideological reasons and others out of necessity. Police don’t visit the zone, but there seems little or no crime – people leave their doors unlocked and one woman told me that social disputes are discussed quickly (and at length). You won’t find a supermarket, but you can still buy your food. You can buy local vegetables, bread made with flour from La ZAD, or patisseries made with butter from the zone. If you need clothes you can go to one of the ‘free shops’ or ‘swap shops’ where unwanted clothes and objects have been carefully hung and stacked, waiting to be found by a new owner. On a Friday you can read La ZAD news about what’s been happening and upcoming events, and attend the no-market. The no-market is where people donate things and other people pay what they feel for them. The money is then used as a community fund. One of the functions of the weekly resident’s meeting is to decide on the spending of the community fund.

Each weekly resident’s meeting is attended by around 50 residents and can take anything from one hour to four, including times of silence. “I hated them at first,” Koen from Rolandiere told me, “I was really frustrated, but now I really like them. You have to get used to it, it’s a very different meeting style, it can feel very slow and like nothing has been decided. But it is important. The silences give space for people who would not normally speak to say something. And decisions can be revoked later in extreme cases if people were not present.”

To finish the week off, after building, farming or making, you can find residents swimming in the large beautiful lake (it is warm and wonderful, I checked) and playing on the salvaged pedal-lo. Yep, don’t ask, I have NO idea how they got that one.

I’ll be posting more blogs about La ZAD over the next few months as I revisit, but in the meantime you can find out more from their website.

They’ve made it in Stroud

I2015-07-17 13.43.14t’s comforting when things you love are stable, and in Stroud it was mostly the things that hadn’t changed which caused a contented smile on my lips.

The shop Made in Stroud is still thriving (but with a few more awards), still selling locally made goods and making positive influences everyday.

The Stroud Valley’s Project is still promoting conservation and offering educational courses. They recently ran a scything workshop after seeing it done wrong on Poldark! Scything is less damaging to the environment than mowing and also helps you to easily leave rare species. The day I visited they were about to run a bat ecology course and head out with bat detectors. 2015-07-17 14.23.11

Those creating positive change in Stroud had a higher average age than people I met in other towns, and had been in the town for longer. As Julie, the fundraising manager for Stroud Valleys Project says, “Who would want to move once you’ve landed here?” The town has a more stable, developed feel to the community than other places I visit. In the Stroud Valley’s Project office they have a reciprocal arrangement for work or rent with the Car Club and Transition Stroud. Transition Stroud have been running open eco-home event and open garden tours with about 1000 house visits. A new addition by Transition Stroud at the back of a closed pub is a pop-up “rain garden” to make efficient use of rainwater runoff from roofs. So simple it makes you wonder why on earth we normally pipe it all down the drain.

Stroud Against the Cuts has had a great turnout at its events and Stroud Co has become a thriving hub for selling home grown food surplus.

It feels like there are lots of people steadily making improvements in Stroud and the cumulative effect of that over many years is to have made a very special place and a very special community.

 

 

Cam and Dursley in Transition

To return to projects and visit people again has a wonderful relaxing deja vu. The memories from last year are often so clear – the places and people having been captured in my notebook, on camera and as unusual special memories. So to see the progress at the community garden in Dursley was a lovely experience. Last year the garden was a concrete pad with rubble, and a whole series of dreams and diagrams.

Now there are planter boxes made from recycled crates, a shed, a polytunnel, fruit trees, flower beds and poles for a performance stage area to be built.

Durham catherdral

There are several great projects in Durham including Fruitful Durham and  Abundant Earth, however upon hearing of Rupert’s accident, it was to the cathedral that I headed. Although many of the visitors are there as tourists, people still come to pray and contemplate in this amazing place. Despite not being Christian, during this journey I’ve found churches to be places of community, safety and care. Lighting a candle and sending my thoughts to Rupert at the cathedral, where he used to sing in the choir, felt right. A verger, I discovered, is someone employed by the cathedral to order the services and maintain the space. I also discovered them to be kindly, helpful and willing to sit with someone in distress. Where do people in your community go, when they don’t know where to go?

Protecting community spaces in York

The heritage campaign for West Bank Park has included funding bids, business mentors, public meetings, research and even celebrity endorsements. The Friends of West Bank Park and have worked to restore and preserve many parts of the park, and now the West Bank Heritage Project hopes to revive the heritage of the park and its legacy as a central part of the community.

With government cuts, the council presented residents in York with the lose-lose scenario that either parks, libraries or swimming pools would take cuts first. West Bank Park in Acum lost much of it’s funding and began to be left unlocked at night. Nearby residents conserned about the future of the park began to launch a campaign to build support for it.

One model that inspired the West Bank group is the successful Rowntree Park in York. The park has a library and cafe at its centre that attracts a lot of visitors to use the park as somewhere to meet and socialise.

When I came across Clements Hall they were running a Food and Fun event where older or isolated residents can enjoy a meal and a chat. The hall was renovated several years ago by the council following a campaign by residents and now offers many different community events and a lot of local people volunteer to keep it going. The hall was originally owned by the nearby St Clements Church where Edible York have created a public vegetable garden.

 

The Sumac center and Peoples Kitchen

When asking ‘what should we visit in Nottingham?’ many people mentioned the Sumac center.

The center is a member of the Radical Routes cooperative network and has become an increasingly important part of the community. The events, activities and facilities provide the space for people to make positive changes. The popular Peoples Kitchen night was happening when we arrived. Volunteers cook up a feast and people can come and eat a delicious two course meal for just £3.50! The money raised is then donated to a good cause. This feast was in aid of the free English lessons that are offered to women at the Sumac Center.

We got chatting to a fantastic couple over dinner and the hours flew by, I can’t think of a better way to enhance your community and have a wonderful night. Thank you so much to all the volunteers who gave their time to the benefit of all.

 

An unusual allotment

St Ann’s Allotment in Nottingham is one of the few remaining Victorian hedged allotments, which means that unlike a normal allotment, each plot is private with a hedge around it. Known as detached city gardens, the 600 plots create a huge variety of uses, and looking through the keyholes of the different coloured and shaped gates there is a sense of expectation – what will you find next?

One of the things I found was Eco Works where they run community events and host groups such as Framework, who work with vulnerable adults. Eco works run a vege box scheme and help people connect with the land to promote health and equality.

The heritage allotments were nearly demolished for housing in the 1990’s after years of dereliction, but when some of the plot holders discovered the council’s intention they launched a campaign to get the allotments listed heritage status.  Forming STAA Ltd they ere able to get the allotments Grade II listing and fundraise for their restoration. With help from heritage lottery funding, they have turned the fate of the site around. Looking at the place no and all the community good that is coming out of it is a powerful reminder that if ordinary people do not act to preserve and protect their communities, it will not happen. If we want a better future we have to create it.

Little mesters and keeping it local

Yes I do have spelling problems but no I haven’t misspelt that, mesters. Mester is a Sheffield term for artisans who used to work in small rented spaces and collaborate on craft projects. Take an umbrella handle. One specialist might carve and prepare the horn or bone, another polish it and another fix it to the umbrella. The mesters of days gone by would hire space next to each other in a workshop and collaborate to produce their products.

Regather is a co-operative that provides space for people to collaborate, run events and access local food. The Regather vegebox scheme allows local farms to supply to residents.

At Hagglers Corner they provide space for 14 different businesses to thrive. From picture framing to yoga, from a seamstress to a cafe, Hagglers Corner brings together exciting new businesses and helps to build the local economy.

Airy Fairy is just one of the many wonderful independent stores and cafes which gives the area of Sharrow it’s character. At the back of the shop is a welcoming cafe with a wood burning stove and a beautiful courtyard garden.

While the fantastic Mr Pickles Yorkshire Food Emporium is keeping it local…

 

 

 

Recovering from trauma

The tasks of restoring ourselves and our environment are intimately linked. To be resilient in a changing future we need emotional and environmental resilience. At their home in West Norfolk Ben and Sophie and doing just that, building resilience. Their home incorporates many aspects of self-sufficiency that you might see elsewhere, but what they then do is open up their home as a restoration space for survivours of torture.

It is genuinely impossible for me to imagine the strength that survivours of torture find every day. After escaping from their situation, to seek asylum in the UK they are processed in a second round of suffering within our system. These highly traumatised people are housed in often horrendous conditions and in order to get any food they must use a pre-paid card which will only work in certain shops such as Tesco. So if there is no Tesco near where you are put, you have no way to pay for a bus to get to one, often as well as language difficulties, leaving you open to further exploitation.

The value of providing a safe space in a family home where groups can visit with a therapist is enormous, often life changing for people who have been to hell and back. Their work has only been going a few years so they hope they will be able to find the funding to continue, but I wish them every success and have the deepest respect for what they have accomplished.

Community owned businesses

There have been quite a few community owned businesses during the tour so far, and I love it every time we find one. Rocklands Community Shop is a wonderful example. The way a community business works is that shares are sold to members of the community, local people staff it and often will volunteer there too. I’ve seen community pubs, a wind turbine and shops but really there’s no reason why you couldn’t use the business model for all sorts of things, whatever the community needs. The great advantage is that the money spent in the shop stays in the community. Normally when you shop at a chain store a large chunk of the money leaves the community to be paid to the head office and on to the parent company, gradually bleeding the resources from the town. If you buy at somewhere like Starbucks or Amazon almost all the money leaves your community and goes to the US, thus avoiding paying any UK tax. Community businesses are a great way to help each other stay strong.

Action in Gamlingay

Something is wrong, and you want to make it right. You start talking to your partner or spouse, then one day your neighbours join in the conversation too. Together you arrange a film screening in the village and print out 1000 leaflets to tell your community about the public meeting. What can happen next is life changing.

Gamlingay Environmental Action Group started in this way, and once people are working together amazing things can happen. The village is located a few mile East of Bedford. It has it’s own community owned wind turbine, who’s profits go back to the village. There are 80 new allotments, and a habitat area because the group was able to successfully negotiate with a developer. Residents can get advice on green living and lowering their energy use. There is an annual bike ride and Green Day.

The village previously only had 8 allotments and there was a waiting list of around 40 people, but the new 80 allotments are now almost all taken! And if you find you need to spend a penny down on the allotment, how about this for a stylish toilet?

The other surprising thing about Gamlingay given the size of the village, is the Eco Hub. The amazing community centre is used for sports, dance, theatre, events, as a library and for computer access. The volunteers give their time to keep the centre thriving. The previous centre was badly degraded, leaking energy out and water in. In the few years since the new sustainable building was built, incorporating much of the old structure, it has become a real centre for the community, rather than just a single use venue for hire.

Located near Gamlingay is Sandy, where the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has it’s headquarters, and part of the success of the village has been the number of people who live in the area who care about the environment. Taking that first step though, to talk to our neighbours, to reach out, is how it all begins.

Why Transition with your community?

Maddie Milns works with her local community in Wells to move away from using fossil fuels, in a group called Transition Wells. Maddie explains why she came to do this work.

There are lots of ways that you can work with your community but Maddie came to find that Transition was a really good option for her.

If you would like to see if there is a Transition group near you, or perhaps start one, visit Transition Network.