UK: *Cohousing Series* Setting Up A Cohousing Community: The Early Days

Last Updated: 17 October 2019
Article by Laura Moss

One of the solicitors in our community-led housing team, Laura Moss, is in the process of setting up her own cohousing project.

She is writing a series of articles for us about the process (you can see the first one here).  In this latest update, she explains what steps the group have taken so far.

"We have now bought our site and are working with architects and planners to realise the development.  The key stages of our journey so far have been as follows:

1. Finding the site

This was relatively easy and straightforward, which is unusual for most cohousing groups.  As the property had been on the market for a while, we were able to bargain the seller down on price.  It is a fairly unique site, with lots of existing buildings which need to be demolished.  The cost and hassle of clearing the site before any development can take place, along with the fact that there is only permission to develop five dwellings, means that it has been relatively unappealing for mainstream developers.  It is also too big for individual self builders so is more or less perfect for a small cohousing group like ours.

2. Forming a group

We started off with just two households (for a potential five homes).  We recruited friends to fill the third plot, found a fourth household through word of mouth and then advertised in a local community newsletter for the remaining fifth plot.

The recruitment process was a useful way of checking that the rest of us were all on the same page, with the kind of community we wanted to create.  Luckily, we all agreed about the kind of person or people we wanted to attract.  Once the fifth household was recruited, we then agreed to meet up in person every month or two, with fortnightly meetings via Skype, to make sure progress was maintained. 

An important part of building our group was agreeing the Vision and Values we would subscribe to.  Broadly speaking, we want to build an inter-generational community with a commitment to environmentalism and social justice, connected to the wider community in the area. 

We also agreed a set of principles about how the community will operate, which we have set out in a Members' Agreement.  This provided us all with reassurance about how we would make certain decisions, such as how each plot would be allocated.

3.Choosing a legal structure

We obviously have an advantage in that I specialise in advising community-led housing groups on legal structures and governance.

We opted for a company limited by guarantee, with bespoke articles of association.  The company has purchased the entire site.  Once some initial groundworks have been completed, the freehold of individual plots will be transferred to the respective residents.  Each resident will then be responsible for building their own house. 

Given the impending changes to leaseholds, we preferred to use a freehold model.  It will avoid any complications in the future and we didn't feel the need to build in a process for future residents to be approved by existing residents (which is easier with a leasehold structure).  Instead, we want future buyers to be self-selecting.

Transferring the individual plots, instead of waiting until properties are built, is beneficial for two reasons.  Firstly, it permits each household to design and build a house of their own particular choosing.  The attitude of the local council has influenced this decision: perhaps unusually, they do not want a development where each house is identical, and would prefer it to look like a collection of farm buildings.  Secondly, transferring the bare plots means that each one has a much lower value than a completed property.  This means that each plot is below the SDLT threshold and there should be no SDLT payable on each individual transfer of the property.  We will already have paid SDLT on the initial purchase of the land and wanted to avoid the double hit of SDLT which so many cohousing groups face.

4. Appointing lawyers

We chose to use Wrigleys for the property purchase, perhaps unsurprisingly. We had a conversation with Emma Ridge and Lizzie Wilson at an early stage, to make sure that they were aware of our plans and could flag up anything that we should be thinking about. They suggested we take SDLT advice (which we managed to get for free from a friendly accountant) and consider VAT issues which might be relevant.

The seller is retaining the land next to our plot, so we had to decide who would be responsible for putting up and maintaining boundary fences and what rights of access we each needed over the other's land.  We agreed most of these points with the sellers before we instructed Emma to deal with the purchase.  This meant that Emma didn't need to be involved in those negotiations, apart from one exciting moment when we discovered a well outside the boundaries of our site, which we needed access to in order to pursue our aim of living off grid. Agreeing the main negotiation points without involving lawyers made things a bit cheaper for us.

5. Arranging funding

We have all entered into a loan agreement with the cohousing company, which sets out the terms on which our funds are being used to purchase the site.  The money we have put into the purchase of the land will be taken into account when the individual plots are transferred to each household.  We have also spoken to Ecology Building Society about potentially lending on the individual property developments, and are in the process of applying for grant funding from the Community Housing Fund via the local community-led housing hub.

6. Working with an architect

We appointed an architect to design the layout of the site and the landscaping.  This architect has particular expertise in cohousing and eco-builds, and we found his experience on previous developments really useful.  My partner and I are also using him to design our individual property, but some of the others have gone for different options or are designing the houses themselves.  The site has outline planning permission, and the architect is working on our application to submit reserved matters, to allow the development to start on site.

7. Planning

We have appointed a planning consultant, who is working closely with the architect designing the overall layout of the site.  This advice has been invaluable, because she has specialist knowledge of the local planning department and can predict what approach they might take to our proposed development.

It has been an exciting few months so far and I have learned so much.  The next step is to submit the reserved matters application to the planning authority, following which we will be able to start on site.  Watch this space for further occasional updates about the progress of our small cohousing community."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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