When British house building briefly went co-operative

Malcolm Sparkes was a builder, but he wouldn’t be a soldier. Exactly one hundred years ago, as many others of his faith as a Quaker had been, he was locked up as a conscientious objector.

When peace came, he saw the opportunity to develop an idea that he had been working up while in prison, co-operative house building.

The Government had made a wartime promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’ and in 1920 started a scheme in which the Treasury would meet the residual costs of all houses built by local authorities. Because of the way it was designed, the scheme – we could dub it ‘Help to Build’ – led to a surge in the price of housing. Private builders and suppliers of building materials saw that local authorities had no incentive to keep prices low, because all the losses would be met by the national exchequer.

Sparkes offered to build houses on a non profit basis, proposing the formation of co-operative Building Guilds to do the work. With open book accounting, they would take up contracts, charging only costs, plus a percentage for overheads and a fixed allowance for the workers to have ‘continuous pay’. Finance could flow because banks had the security of payments from the local authority as the houses went up.

The idea captured the imagination of trade unionists and the idea, starting in Manchester and London, spread by the end of 1921 to 100 towns and cities. Local guilds were formed and soon amalgamated into one powerful umbrella body, the National Building Guild.

In the first eighteen months, everything went well, with the guilds outperforming both on cost and quality in terms of the houses they were building.

But of course, the competition of private house builders were vocal critics. Just as the Government had some years earlier changed the rules to disadvantage consumer retail co-operatives (prompting the formation of the Co-operative Party), so it changed the rules to pull the rug out from underneath the fledgling co-ops. The ‘cost plus’ contracts were outlawed and new requirements introduced which meant that far more working capital was needed while houses were going up.

“These changes could hardly have been better designed if they had been intended – which of course the Government protested they were not – to sabotage the Building Guild” comments Geoffrey Ostergaard in his 1990s essay on the tradition of worker control.

As night follows day, the enterprise went into reverse. The Co-operative Wholesale Society which had provided vital working capital to the early societies was forced to withdraw. By the end of 1922, the Guild was in the hands of the receivers.

Of course, there is a proud tradition of non-profit and mutual landlords and developers that flourished over the twentieth century and today in social housing, plus a vibrant renewal of community, co-op and mutual housing in recent years. The Confederation of Co-operative Housing is gathering in early May for an event, People and Power, on this.

But if the UK had been less hostile to co-operative house building early on, who knows, perhaps we might not have some of the housing challenges we do today.

As a builder, locked up in gaol, Malcolm Sparkes would perhaps have been having just that very same, hopeful dream… one hundred years ago.

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