Australian co-operator visits UK housing co-operatives

Ian McLaren, General Manager of SouthEast Housing Co-operative The Co-operative College recently facilitated a fact-finding visit around UK housing co-operatives for Ian McLaren, General Manager of SouthEast Housing Co-operative in Victoria, Australia – including a visit to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, the UK’s largest housing co-operative.

SouthEast Housing Co-operative provides housing to those on low incomes in the state of Victoria, managing 160 homes. Its members are the people who rent the accommodation, with the co-operative aiming to provide and increase secure, affordable and environmentally sustainable long-term community housing managed by and for low-income people, and deliver excellent services to improve the quality of housing of residents. Among those it provides housing for are people who have suffered from domestic violence and drug and alcohol issues, with those tenants who are working subsidising the housing of lower-income groups. The co-operative has existed for around thirty years, growing out of the amalgamation of five co-operatives that amalgamated. It is now the largest co-operative housing provider in the area, and meets regularly with seven or eight smaller housing co-operatives to share ideas and support. As McLaren explained, there is an “obligation to help others if you can do so and to grow the whole co-operative housing sector – not just my organisation but the whole sector”.

During his visit to the UK, McLaren visited a number of housing co-operatives, and bodies which work with housing co-operatives, in order to “look at potential initiatives that are working here that could be transferred to Australia”. His trip took him to London and the Midlands, and he also saw new homes being built by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing and heard about some of their strategies for engaging with different groups of members, such as young people. He also managed to fit in a visit to the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, and a trip to the College to receive an overview of its work.

McLaren said he was “blown away” by the scale of housing co-operatives in the UK, which he had assumed to be the same size as those in Australia, particularly Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which encompasses tens of thousands of properties (the largest housing co-operative in Australia, by comparison has 4 or 5,000 properties).

He commented: “One other thing that struck me was the amount of development and involvement of the members, which is very different to what I’m used to, and employing members as well – Rochdale Boroughwide Housing has 50 paid employee members as well as a large number of tenant members, which is a different sort of strategy, and I can see the benefit.  The employees are the people that operationalise the day-to-day and future works of the organisation, and there are also advantages involved in the member engagement strategy. There is a real commitment in Rochdale in people and resources to maximise the involvement of tenants. I saw an organisation that is really striving hard to get member engagement and putting resources – people and money – into that operation ad growing the business.”

In an interview filmed by the College, McLaren explained that the government of Victoria is to transfer 12,000 properties, out of a total of about 7,000, into the community sector. MacLaren says he believes that the co-operative sector in particular is “better-placed and able to better manage community or social housing in the long-term than its current providers”, and provides a “better way of running the whole of not-for-profit housing”, whether it is called public, social or community housing. He added: ”We like to think that we’re capable of thinking outside the square and looking at other possibilities.”

McLaren also set out some of the problems facing the housing sector in Australia; in Victoria alone, it is estimated that the population will increase by 100,000 a year due to migration from other states, along with immigration and an accelerating birth rate. Other challenges include financial issues with public housing, the removal of government subsidies, and land prices, which have “gone through the roof in recent times”. He explained: “The housing crisis is not abating. The need for housing is increasing, there is a growing homelessness problem, like other countries there is an influx of refugees and asylum seeks, exacerbating the housing need, and housing affordability has never been lower. House prices in Australia are the highest in the world, commensurate with salaries and prices don’t seem to be abating – how much longer it is sustainable is questionable.”

He said that bodies such as his needed to find solutions, such as maximising existing land and holding discussions with councils about bringing back into use excess land which is not required. Other approaches might include joint ventures and partnerships with larger associations who can provide the development expertise and support necessary to keep the cost of housing down. He added that this needed to include a commitment to low-income housing targeting the needy, including some percentage dedicated to asylum seekers and refugees.

He said there was a “challenge for the future”, but also opportunities, and a “need to find ways to continue to grow the organisation” and grow the social housing portfolio.

To watch the full interview visit http://vimeo.com/105759263.

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