Latest news on proposed community / housing co-op / eco-centre in the Midlands

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Posted Jan 20 2016 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

A week ago, we posted about a large, 50-room Victorian mansion with lodge house, stable block, the largest walled garden we’ve ever seen, and 21 acres of woodland that was up for sale on the Worcestershire / Shropshire border.It’s called Bockleton Court – we think it’s been empty since 2014, and the initial price was around £4 million. We know that in 2015 it went to auction with a reserve price of £1.2 million and failed to sell. It also failed to sell at further auctions with reserve prices of £1 million, and then £800,000. Yes – £800,000. We couldn’t work out why no-one seemed to want it, and so a few of us (including myself and Scarlett of WWOOF UK) got together to come up with a plan to buy it and turn it into an intentional community / centre to host events involving social change / environmental organisations like Lowimpact.org. That price was too much to resist. I know people living in three-bedroom houses in London that would sell for more than that.

The response

The response was incredible – we received over 100 emails with expressions of interest, most from people with at least £100k to invest, plus over 60 responses on the blog, and more via social media. It seems that this kind of idea is attractive to a lot of people. Investments would have been for loan stock, which would have been paid back from rents to the co-op, or we could have obtained a mortgage to pay off loan stock.

I say ‘could have’ because, inexplicably, suddenly there seems to have been an explosion of interest in the property, where previously there was none. We received this a few days ago from the vendor (Birmingham City Council):

Thank you for your recent interest in the above property. During the course of last weekend the Council has received several competing offers for the property. Given the nature of the offers received, the Council is left with no alternative but to request best and final unconditional offers supported by proof of finance. Should you wish to pursue your interest in the property, the Council invites your best and final offer by a deadline of noon on 18/1/16. For your information and assistance, the following documents are enclosed.

  • Best and Final Offer Form (To be completed and returned)
  • A site plan showing the property edged red
  • A copy of the Legal Title Pack

Additional information, including full sale particulars and planning statement can be viewed at our website www.birminghampropertyservices.co.uk

Should you wish to discuss further, please do not hesitate to give me a call.

We emailed to say that we had pledges well in excess of the asking price, and so would be able to buy the property outright – but that there was absolutely no way that we could make a firm offer this week. Yesterday, we received this:

Thank you for your offer in respect of the above property. It would be fair to say that the Council has been overwhelmed in terms of the interest shown in this property since it was offered at auction in December, a factor which has been reflected in the number of offers received and the financial level of the bids. Unfortunately, following a full evaluation of the offers received, I regret to advise that the Council will not be pursuing your offer further. A recommendation for sale has been made for acceptance by the Council, and no further offers are now being invited for the property. May I take this opportunity of thanking you for the interest you have shown in this opportunity.

We have no idea why there has been a sudden surge of interest, but if we’re going to form a community, it’s not going to be in this property. If you’re still interested in joining or starting a community like this, see the ‘What next?’ section below.

Some thoughts

Here are some thoughts about some of the points brought up in the communications we’ve received about this proposed project.

We were asked for more information about the kind of model we had in mind, and would it be similar to the cohousing model. We’d only be interested in the fully-mutual housing co-op model (all members live in the property and all people who live in the property are members), with an asset lock so that members would never be able to benefit from the property’s sale. Plus we’d want it to be accessible to people with no money, and for everyone to be at the same ‘level’ in terms of ownership. That would involve loan stock / mortgage being paid off from rent and all members paying a rent to the co-op.
That was the situation at Redfield Community, where Scarlett and I used to live, and it worked very well. Everyone would be a part-owner, as a member of the co-op, but would pay rent to the co-op to live there. In effect, it means that all members are landlords and tenants at the same time. On top of that, we’d include a clause that meant that members would pay rent in perpetuity, so that a fund can be built up to buy more properties, and so enlarge the co-op sector. As it stands, when co-ops pay off the mortgage, they have no incentive to attract new members, and they could just live in a nice place for free. Radical Routes have written about this – it’s a problem when it comes to building the co-operative sector.

We were informed that it would be very difficult to make changes to a Grade II listed building, and that it’s also very difficult to live sustainably in large Victorian houses like this one, as they require so much maintenance and are so difficult to heat. Yes – at Redfield some of us joked about burning the main house down, collecting the insurance money and building straw-bale houses around the property. We were only joking though, honestly. Redfield wasn’t listed, and we all had wood stoves in our rooms, which was cosy. We also provided electricity and hot water via pv and solar thermal panels. Maintenance was a problem, but we didn’t aspire for it to be like a luxury hotel – we were relaxed that it looked a little ‘tired’, as long as the roof didn’t leak or there was no structural damage. But ultimately, if we don’t colonise places like this, it won’t mean that they won’t exist – just that they’ll be luxury flats, which is a shame.

We were asked whether the community would be vegan, and no, we didn’t have any plans for a vegan community. We’re happy for vegans to be involved of course, but not happy to insist that everyone is vegan. We would almost definitely have kept chickens, for example. Here’s a more in-depth discussion about the ethics of eating meat.

There were some exasperating exchanges complaining that this was only a project for people with money, and was therefore exclusive. Exclusive would be luxury flats. We were trying to secure it so that it could be set up as a co-operative in perpetuity, and people with no capital could join. I wondered if the people who complained would prefer if we didn’t try to do something like this.

Several people mentioned that they would prefer a smallholding / self-build. Would you consider investing in the Ecological Land Co-op? You won’t be guaranteed your own plot, but you’ll be helping to provide more land on which smallholders can build a home – plus it’s an investment, not a gift. The maximum investment is £5000 at the moment, until a new share offer is launched. This is the only way we can make more land available for sustainable self-build on smallholdings – development land is usually too expensive for potential smallholders, and you’re not allowed to build in the open countryside.

What next?

We’ve had a plan to start some kind of community for a few years now, but it wasn’t at the top of the priority list. When we saw this property, and the price, we moved it to the top of the list because it was such a fabulous opportunity. Our big project for this year is provisionally called ‘Community-supported Everything’ and we’ll be blogging about it soon. We can look at a community project in a more leisurely fashion. We can take our time to get together a group of people, form a co-op and look for a property.

However, we now have around 100 email addresses of people who would like to form a community / co-op and have money to invest. I’m betting that many of those people would find it very interesting to talk with each other. We can’t just make their email addresses available, of course, and so I’ll be emailing them all with a link to this post. If people want to leave contact details below, this could be a springboard for several new communities / co-ops to start.

Several people said that they’d been ‘waiting for an opportunity like this’ – but you can make something happen. Here’s a guide.

See here for basic information about housing co-ops and here for info on intentional communities.

Then this introduction to starting a housing co-op, from Radical Routes – http://www.radicalroutes.org.uk/publicdownloads/how2housingco-opstepbystep.pdf

Then the documents on this page, from Somerset Co-operative Services – http://www.somerset.coop/p/briefings-and-resources.html

And then you’re ready to read these two documents, from:

Radical Routes – http://www.radicalroutes.org.uk/images/stories/Housing_Co-op_2015_8th_edition.pdf

and Catalyst Collective – catalyst-guide-to-housing-co-ops

Then find yourself a gang, persuade them it’s a good idea, contact Catalyst Collective or Somerset Co-operative Services and tell them you’re ready to talk about model rules and registration.

Good luck!