These Houses are Ours: Co-operative and Community-led housing alternatives, 1870 – 1919

Natalie Bradbury interviews Andrew Bibby about his new book, These Houses Are Ours, which uncovers a neglected period in the movement’s history. Interview published in Co-op News 1st March 2023.

The provision of housing is one of the less well-known aspects of the co-operative movement’s history, but a new book by Andrew Bibby revisits precedents in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to highlight their commonalities with community-led housing today.

These Houses Are Ours explores a legacy of co-operative housing development between 1870 and 1919, particularly ‘co-partnership tenant societies’, which were established to provide good homes at affordable rents in tenant-run communities. Although the mainstream co-operative movement didn’t engage in housing to the same extent as co-operatives in other countries, a number of co-partnership societies were formed around the country. Often, development was funded through philanthropic or private investment in a way that Bibby likens to today’s community shares model.

Bibby describes this historical movement as “an attempt to do something practical in response to the really major housing problems at the time”. At the same time, he says, by providing modern homes and shared amenities such as sports facilities, meeting rooms and social clubs, it “allowed ordinary working-class people to have some of the pleasures in life that the rich took for granted”.

Bibby’s book involved research in local and national archives, as well as looking at the minutes and record books of individual societies. In addition to telling the story of these societies, a number of key personalities emerge, who had the means and the motivation to support the development of co-operative housing. While some were individuals Bibby had previously encountered during his research into the co-operative movement, others were members of what Bibby calls the “great and the good”. These include well-known figures such as Fred Bulmer, the cider producer, who established Hereford Cooperative Housing Ltd, and the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who invested a considerable amount of money in co-partnership housing.

Bibby explains that “what Shaw was doing was very similar to people who invest in community shops, community energy and community pubs today. He wanted to achieve something with his money that was a financial return but also a moral return. He didn’t want it just sitting on the stock exchange.”

Another individual whose contribution Bibby feels deserves to be recognised was Sybella Gurney, who studied at Royal Holloway University at a time when it was difficult for women to get degree status. “She was very involved in the co-operative world,” Bibby says. “She put her money where her mouth was.”

A gazetteer at the end of the book shows how widespread the movement was, with around 150 places either establishing or discussing co-partnership societies. In the course of his research, Bibby visited the majority of those which remain tenant-managed today, although he admits that they weren’t easy to track down. Speaking to management committees enabled him to understand how they have survived and how they handle governance, tenant representation and participation today.

“Amazingly, there are still ten tenant developments functioning,” he says. “This is an astonishing achievement when you think about how things have changed in the past 100 years in terms of housing policy and government policy and the risk of demutualisation. Societies evolve, housing evolves and housing requirements evolve, but it demonstrates there is still life in the model.”

Bibby notes that many of the co-partnership developments remain highly attractive places to live. These include Burnage Garden Village, established by Manchester Tenants Ltd in south Manchester, which incorporates facilities such as tennis courts, as well as Broadway Garden Village in Fairfield, east of Manchester, which was designed by the renowned architect Edgar Wood for Moravian Tenants. The co-operative housing movement was closely linked with the garden city and garden suburb movements, and incorporated amenities such as playgrounds and green spaces. Even in those developments that are no longer co-operative societies or tenant run, he has found that residents were proud of their history and “know there’s something special about where they live”.

Bibby is a founder trustee and volunteer with Calder Community Land Trust, whose first development, bungalows for older people, was completed in 2020. Community land trusts, he says, provide a way for people come together to “create decent housing through community endeavour”. This is an idea which is very closely linked to the co-operative movement, as a grassroots movement founded on self-help that seeks to find bottom-up solutions to social and economic issues.

“We have a problem, the housing crisis, and we aren’t building the houses that are desperately needed,” Bibby explains. “The market isn’t meeting the need, so we are asking what can communities do for themselves. It’s providing affordable housing that a generation ago local authorities would have provided.”

He is interested in what contemporary community-led initiatives can learn from the experiences of earlier societies. As the book shows, many of today’s challenges are strikingly similar to those facing nineteenth-century reformers, from a shortage of affordable housing at decent standards to tourism and second home ownership – something that remains particularly acute in areas such as Cornwall and the Lake District.

“What is extraordinary is how similar what community land trusts are doing today is to what was being done 100 years ago,” Bibby observes, “We have the same desires, the same issues and the same dilemmas, for example, how do you raise the money? We can learn from some of those early examples.”

Community land trusts can also encourage a different and less reactive approach to planning, he argues, where people feel more empowered to have a say and communities get the opportunity to discuss and decide how towns and villages can develop to meet their needs, rather than being shaped by outside developers.

Bibby is encouraged by a sense that co-operative housing is “back on the agenda in a big way”, for the first time in 20 years, and hopes that his book will provide a source of inspiration.

“I hope that those involved in co-operative housing, co-housing or community land trusts can get know their history and that they’re not starting from scratch,” he says.

“They can build on the legacy of hard-working people over 100 years ago and learn from what they did right, as well as from what they didn’t do so well. Lots of people are now getting involved in bottom-up, community-led housing ventures and I hope this history can directly affect what we’re doing and have meaning and relevance for our efforts today. We can’t create as many houses as are needed but we can create really good quality, decent housing and show the way to the type of housing we’d like to have in the future.”

Natalie Bradbury is a freelance writer with an interest in cities, architecture and art, who is currently finishing a PhD at UCLan about post-war art and education

John Goodman review of “These Houses are Ours”

published in Co-operative News 13th March 2023


Author: Andrew Bibby