It goes without saying that Britain’s housing market faces a crisis. There are over 200,000 empty homes in Britain this year, yet despite the number of empty homes, the prices of houses have risen dramatically. Currently, according to the Office of National Statistics, the average price of a house is over seven times the annual income of a UK worker- hardly ideal for ordinary people aspiring to get on the property ladder. Many of these empty homes are in fact owned from overseas and are treated as an investment as part of buy-to-let schemes, contributing to their skyrocketing prices. As a consequence, home ownership in the UK was the fourth lowest in the EU last year.
Clearly now is the time we put our heads together to brainstorm a fairer, more sustainable system of ownership in our cities. Unfortunately, such discussion is often thin on the ground. There is, however, a strategy that has great potential, and has been demonstrated to be effective in creating social and environmental sustainability. I refer to urban community ownership.
Community ownership of rural land is receiving increasing attention in recent years, particularly in my native Scotland, where half a million acres are now owned by local communities. The possibility of replicating this in our towns and cities, however, is rarely discussed. But this hasn’t stopped a remarkable project in Spain from demonstrating the potential in our urban communities.
Having begun as a mortgage activism group in 2014, the Barcelona En Comu movement was elected to governance of Barcelona within a year of its foundation. Since then, it has facilitated the purchase of the Can Batllo area by the locals, who have revitalised this derelict industrial site by creating new social houses, public schools, two new parks and a public library. In addition, the En Comu council has undergone the municipalisation of Barcelona’s water supply and created a new system of policy-making, based on collecting public responses on the issues in different neighbourhoods.
What does Barcelona En Comu teach us? Firstly, that communities can own and manage their surrounding areas succesfully, and also that there is great potential among urban communities that, until recently, has not been utilised.
Now, however, there are a growing number of cities looking to imitate Barcelona’s success. Over 1,600 cities are experimenting with municipalism and co-operative ownership, including in the UK: the Leeds LILAC initiative has seen local homeowners form a housing cooperative, with shared ownership of houses, green spaces, and, most importantly, jobs: tasks such as lawnmowing and washing clothes are organised on a rota, using a single appliance, dramatically cutting energy usage.
The above cases from Barcelona and Leeds are just two different methods of urban community ownership; the variety of ways in which it has been implemented is vast and allows for a lot of experimentation. I don’t wish to force public ownership on urban communities against their wishes and strongly advise against doing so. But a lot of these communities have shown an interest in the land they live on, and in my opinion, giving them the ability to manage it for their future is certainly something worth championing.