Our solicitor Laura Moss talks about her own experiences developing a co-housing project.
This article is the third in the series following Laura Moss, one of the solicitors in our community-led housing team, as she develops her own cohousing project. She gives us an outline of the ways in which her group have handled communications and conflicts issues, to help things run smoothly.
For the previous articles in the series, please see here:
"In general, I am amazed how well our cohousing group gets on. It may have something to do with the fact that we have chosen to live as neighbours and share a set of common values and priorities. It probably also helps that we are a fairly small group – we are trying to agree a position between nine adults, rather than 19 or even 90 adults, which some cohousing communities have to manage.
Of course there are occasions when we disagree. We have needed to work out the best way to deal with conflicts head-on, to ensure that points are satisfactorily resolved. We are going to be close neighbours in an intentional community and we want to avoid lingering resentments, which build and fester. Developing a clear governance framework, with the right policies and procedures, has been the main tool we have used to do this.
What is our governance framework?
Our articles of association form the bedrock on which all our other governance policies and procedures sit. We have adopted the Wrigleys model articles of association for cohousing companies, which contain a clear statement of objects, setting out what our aims and purposes are.
We also have a members' agreement, which all members have signed up to. This goes into more detail about various points raised in the articles, such as how consensus decision making will work. We wanted to adopt consensus decision making to make sure that everybody is involved in the choices we make and that nobody is left behind or disenfranchised by a particular decision. So far, it has generally worked well. To avoid undue delays, where consensus is not reached after a certain timescale, a proposal may be put to a vote. We've not had to do this yet.
Alongside the articles of association, we spent considerable time developing our vision and value statements. We originally drafted these when we were recruiting new members for the community. It was really helpful to have an agreed vision and set of values, which we could present to candidates. Those candidates could then decide whether or not they agreed with this enough to join us.
Part of our vision is to create and sustain 'a strong, mutually supportive, intentional community; a community with shared values, that makes decisions by consensus, that resolves conflicts amicably and that shares resources, responsibilities and projects'.
Our values flow out of this vision and cover points such as mutual respect, how we should behave towards each other (with kindness, honesty, openness, tolerance, good humour and friendliness) and making decisions democratically (ideally by consensus). It also states that we should make decisions which enable the community as a whole to flourish, as well as individual members of it.
Taking the vision and values as a starting point, we then agreed a communications and conflicts policy. Our reasoning was that effective communication should help to minimise conflict, but if conflicts do arise, we needed to agree how best to communicate that. The two are therefore intrinsically interlinked.
The essence of the communications policy is that members should always be respectful and considerate towards each other, acting in accordance with our vision and values.
One of the stumbling blocks we have found is making sure that the forums for decision making are appropriate. We found that we were making lots of decisions informally by methods such as WhatsApp, and it was hard to keep track of who had agreed to what and whether something was actually binding. There were also differences in the group between people who were used to using applications such as WhatsApp and those who were not.
We therefore agreed that the meetings in person are the preferred forum for decision making. High value and/or high consequence decision are reserved for meetings in person, to give people the opportunity to ask questions and so that we all understand what is going on. We have meetings in person every month.
In between meetings in person, we may make decisions via telephone meetings (which we have fortnightly). This is useful where a decision needs to be made more quickly than a meeting in person permits.
Only low value or low consequence decisions may be made by email. If a decision needs to be taken by email, the subject line must include the words 'action required' or 'decision required', the email must include a deadline by which the action is required and if and when consensus is reached, the proposer must inform the entire group by email.
Although this may seem somewhat bureaucratic, we have adopted this process in order to prevent conflicts further down the line. It means that everyone has a meaningful say in how the community operates and has their voice heard. It also protects a proposer of any decision – if everyone has had a say and agreed with a particular position, people cannot complain further down the line.
The trickiest part is resolving conflicts. Our conflicts policy has a starting assumption that everyone is acting out of good intentions by trying to do the best for the community. We are good people without malicious motivations and it is more likely that disagreement has arisen out of a misunderstanding, rather than deliberate wrongdoing.
The policy states that face to face communication is the preferred way of addressing conflict situations, because emails can all too easily be misinterpreted. A quick email sent in the heat of the moment may later be regretted. It reminds us to keep things in perspective and to maintain a polite and kind tone in our dealings with each other.
We have not quite worked out how to deal with conflicts which involve non-members (such as children, guests or lodgers). Where children are concerned, conflicts will usually be addressed through their responsible adult, but this will not always be appropriate where it involves independent-minded teenagers.
The next step is to identify further areas of potential conflict. We want to agree relevant policies up front, to try and prevent those conflicts from arising in the first place. Although we want to minimise bureaucracy, anything which helps the community run harmoniously is to be welcomed. Suggestions so far include policies to cover visitors, guests and parties, use of common areas, business use of the site, pets, subletting/lodgers and shared costs.
Where did these policies come from?
Of course, Wrigleys can help with some of these documents, especially those which are more legal in nature, like the members' agreement and the articles of association. However, the majority of the policies and procedures don't need a lawyer – they just need to reflect how your group wants to operate.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that I made all our policies up from scratch. There is an awful lot of information from existing communities already out there, and a trawl of other cohousing groups' websites was a useful starting point. At some point, my community intends to start our own website and we will upload these documents on there. For now, we are too busy (and excited!) planning our community to spend yet more time at a computer.
In the meantime, I would always be interested to hear your thoughts on the points raised above."
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