Every business has its story and the birth of Lilac, an award-winning young community housing co-op in Leeds, has been told many times. Built with straw bales for sustainability and warmth by a vibrant, can-do community of people, Lilac has become a poster child for a different model of housing in the UK.
It was such a pleasure to visit Lilac today, for the first time, after a trip to the Yorkshire Building Society and to see the progress of this practical, visionary settlement, converted from a former school, closed down many years before.
As a sign fixed humorously by the path reads, this way lies utopia.
I am grateful to the members that welcomed me in and showed me around. The first residents moved in in 2013. There is a profound sense of community and of values which comes across in all the detail, as well as a sense of constant and active problem-solving. “We love showing people around as we love living here“, I was told.
Here is one of the best annual reports I have seen of any organisation – an overview of who did what and how it went over 2017-2018 on one single poster size piece of paper, up in the Common House in Lilac Grove that is used for shared meals, shared events… and collecting the post.
Lilac benefited in 2017 from advice through the business support programme we run for co-ops, The Hive, in partnership with the Co-operative Bank. The model behind Lilac is one, I was reminded, that originated in work at the New Economics Foundation as it happens when I was Director there, working with CDS Coop Housing.
In a Mutual Housing Ownership Society, the members make an investment and in return, they get equity shares in the society and the use of one of the homes. The society takes out a collective mortgage and costs can be spread across members according to the ability of each to pay. Equity shares are linked to the mortgage and if you leave you can sell them.
As a community led project, when the planning application went in, there were twenty seven responses from the neighbours, all in favour, with no objections.
Lilac takes many of our most insuperable contemporary challenges, of sustainability, of isolation and of inequality and shows how to tackle them together. This Lilac is in bloom.