West Leeds: Eco-friendly co-operative paradise is first for UK

Lilac Grove in Bramley.
Lilac Grove in Bramley.
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Fed up with living in a ‘soulless’ community, residents in Bramley have created what they hope is a little piece of paradise. Neil Hudson spoke to them about the lilac scheme now it is a reality.

This week sees the official opening of the UK’s first mutual co-operative housing development.

If you are unsure what that means, then think of a co-operative but with less of the ‘commune’.

The Lilac development off Victoria Park Avenue, Bramley, Leeds, is a departure from the norm when it comes to new housing developments.

Lilac stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Accommodation.

Made from straw bales and timber, it has taken around five years to realise.

It is home to 33 adults and nine children and while each family has their own ample living space, they also enjoy a number of shared facilities, including a communal hall, where dinner is served twice a week and a laundrette.

Lilac is, to all intents and purposes, a stab at utopian living. It’s trying to have the best of both worlds - the best parts of living in a commune, such as neighbours who care, growing your own food and so on and the best of living privately, as each family home or flat has its own space.

Over and above that and unlike a traditional co-operative model, if residents choose to leave the development at any point, they are able to cash in ‘shares’ in the scheme, which newcomers would then buy.

Father-of-two Alan Thornton, 40, a charity worker who grew up in the area, was one of the people who helped thrash out the original idea.

He said: “It’s taken five years to get to this point but we have been very lucky in terms of being able to get the land we wanted and the planning permission.

“The development is unique in that, as far as we know, it’s the first three-storey straw bale construction in the UK. It is modelling on a co-operative housing model with some shared facilities - there is a communal building where we offer two optional shared meals a week.

“I suppose one of the original ideas a desire to live next to people who care. I used to living in a typical terraced house but like many people my neighbours weren’t that neighbourly.

“This is the opposite of the Lilac development, where everyone knows everyone else.

“There are 20 houses for 33 adults and nine children - it’s brilliant for the children, not just because of the amount of free space they have but also because of the fact there are so many people to look out for them.

“It really is lovely living here and if truth be told thinking about it is sometimes a little bit overwhelming. It has been an amazing journey.”

One battle the residents did have to fight was to convince planners that each of the houses should have fewer than the accepted two parking bays, which was something they were keen to secure as part of the overall scheme.

“It’s in keeping with our ethos, which is that wherever possible we will carshare and we do not want lots of cars driving around the site. It also makes it much safer for the children.”

The Lilac scheme cost around £2m but is split between the residents, meaning each of them takes on a certain amount of financial responsibility.

Funding for the project has come from members’ deposits and investments, a £400,000 Government grant and a mortgage from Dutch bank Triodos.

“We pay in roughly about a third of our income and we get shares in return,” explained Alan. “But if anyone were to leave then they would be able to cash in those shares, so in effect they have something to take with them, which is unlike a typical co-operative.

“The space available here is amazing but more than that, I think it’s the sense of community which really makes a difference to people’s lives.

“Everything is done by consensus, including deciding who lives here. We actually have a growing waiting list of people who would like to live here.”

In addition to that they have also had a good deal of interest from councils and even the Welsh Government, which sent officials on a fact-finding visit.

The scheme comprises six one-bed flats and six two-bed flats, together with six three-bed houses and two four-bed houses, not including the communal facilities, which also include 30 allotments.

The two rows of houses face each other and kitchen sinks are strategically placed under the windows so you can give a cheery wave to passers-by while doing the dishes.

There are no washing machines or tumble dryers in the homes, so residents have to use the on-site laundry, giving them a chance to meet and chat with their neighbours.

They can also swap gardening tips as every home has it its own allotment.

Unlike the communes of the 1960s and 70s, those living in co-housing schemes have a home of their own and share facilities.

Although they have their own kitchens, cooking and eating communally is encouraged. The emphasis is on creating a caring, eco-friendly and sociable community.

Due to the building materials used and the fact the houses are fitted with solar panels, heating costs are significantly lower than you might expect.

“I pay about £15 a quarter for my gas and electric,” says Alan, who also helped build his house. And he thinks it’s a model which could be taken up by others.

“We’re always getting people coming down to ask us about the scheme and I think it’s something which could be taken up and done in other places and we’d be more than happy to help or advise people on how to do that.”

The Homes and Communities Agency, which part-funded a grant to help Lilac clear the former school site ready for development, said the scheme was a “model for the future”.

To secure a property you have to become a member of the Lilac co-operative, which means being vetted to ensure you will fit in. Under a new legal structure, known as mutual home ownership, you need a deposit of about 10 per cent of the property value, after which you pay a third of your wage each month.

This buys you shares in the co-op, which you can redeem if you decide to move on. You get back what you put in and are immune to the ups and downs of the property market.

Mr Thornton, who is moving to a three-bedroom house with his partner and two children, added: “It’s not about making money; it’s about making a happier place to live. You don’t make a profit if house prices go up but equally you won’t lose anything if they go down. You’ll save money by having lower energy bills and sharing resources. We have also set up a food co-op to buy food in bulk.”

An open day for invited guests will be held on Saturday.

LILAC FACTS AND FIGURES

LILAC members are aged from three months to 78 years and come from all walks of life. They include doctors, charity workers, artists and actors.

Building started on the Lilac scheme in April 2012, although the idea came four years before that during a conversation between friends.

Part of the three-storey straw bale houses, which are also believed to be the tallest of their kind in the UK, were constructed in a ‘pop-up’ warehouse in Dewsbury by a company which specialises in straw bale construction.

Leeds City Council has welcomed the project. Councillor Peter Gruen, Leeds City Council executive board member for neighbourhoods and housing said: “It is fantastic to see this kind of project starting in Leeds. It is something totally different, and a project that will inspire others to be involved in similar ideas.”

Shares in the scheme have a nominal value of £1,000.

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