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The last decade has seen renewed interest across the political spectrum in mutual approaches to ownership, management and service delivery. Although mutualism has traditionally been ‘owned’ by Labour and its sister Co-operative Party, the creation of Conservative Coops, the inclusion of mutualism in David Cameron’s Big Society, the Cabinet Office’s promotion of mutual models of public service delivery, and support from Bright Blue and ResPublica, have all enabled mutualism to move centre stage in UK policy-making.

UK housing is now a key area where extension of existing and development of new mutual models are both possible and desirable. Yet the shape, history, performance and achievements of the mutual housing sector in the UK have been largely uncharted. This is partly because mutual housing organisations only constitute a small part of the UK’s housing system and have received little attention. Alongside, policy-makers have been reticent to hand over control of key assets, such as housing, to communities. Mutualism has largely been ignored by public and private sectors alike: with the honourable exceptions of organisations such as Welsh Water and John Lewis.

In fact, the UK is unusual when compared with European Union partners where housing co-operatives comprise around 5 to 15 per cent of national housing systems. Looking across the Atlantic, 5 per cent of housing in Canada is run by mutuals. And it’s even 1 per cent in that bastion of free enterprise, the USA.

This under-development was the starting point for a recent study of mutual housing in the UK called ‘More than Markets’ carried out by the Human City Institute. The study found that the UK has a vibrant, growing, and diverse yet relatively small mutual housing sector. Some195,000 homes are mutually owned or managed, equating to 1 per cent of all UK housing. Organisational size varies from less than 10 homes in management to more than 15,000. Mutual housing organisations have an annual turnover in excess of £531m, have shareholder capital of £494m and have around 200,000 co-operating members. While considerable, this represents less than 0.5 per cent of social housing annual turnover and only 1.4 per cent of the £38bn annual turnover of the wider mutual economy.

England, Scotland and Wales all have varied mutual housing histories and futures. England has the largest number of ownership co-operatives and tenant management organisations while Scotland has a long tradition of community-controlled housing associations. Wales has pioneered the community mutual and is pushing for greater co-operative development.  Community mutuals are also a growing feature in England with council housing transfers in Preston, Rochdale and Liverpool to tenant and community-controlled organisations.

Increased mutual housing activity is partly explained by a growing realisation that mutual housing organisations are VFM housing managers. Rent arrears, vacancies and housing re-let times are all lower than national social housing averages. They also compare favourably on repairs performance and housing ‘indecency’ is dramatically lower. Mutual housing organisations outscore other landlord types on customer service, dealing with complaints, looking after communal areas, helping residents with benefits, health and neighbourhood safety. Additionally, satisfaction among residents runs ahead of that in the wider social housing sector. But where mutual housing organisations really score is in providing added social value beyond other forms of social housing, contributing significantly to the Big Society ethic.

In addition, controlling assets by tenants and low income groups has positive effects on personal wellbeing, self-esteem, health, employment access and progression, and life chances. Mutual housing organisations, such as community mutuals and community land trusts, are in a unique position to combine economic democracy with provision of affordable and sustainable housing while creating vibrant and safe neighbourhoods.

Our study recommends that, given the advantages of mutual housing in VFM terms and its potential to realise the Big Society, we should extend it across the UK by supporting under-developed models, like community land trusts and mutual home ownership, and transferring swathes of social housing into the control of tenants and communities. Mutualising social housing could be as dramatic a policy as the Right to Buy was in the 1980s but without the loss of a national asset at knock-down prices.

Kevin Gulliver is Director of the Human City Institute. They investigates social and economic exclusion and promotes solutions that seek to build more human cities and community services. They Tweet at @HumanCityIns .