‘The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you.’

Dr Katie McClymont, co-author of Community-led housing and health: a comprehensive literature review, reports on a world café-style workshop where academics, planners, policy makers and those in community-led housing gave feedback and discussed next steps. 

In her famous and oft-quoted article, Sherry Arnstein describes community involvement thus: ‘The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you’.

A similar comment could be made about community-led housing (CLH). Both its proponents, and government sources and commentators, view it as a solution to many of the problems associated with the contemporary UK housing market and unhealthy and unhappy urban lifestyles more widely. However, there is surprisingly little robust evidence used to back up many of these claims. Little is known definitively about the benefits of community-led housing, despite the assertions made for it as a mode of development and living. The review which we have just undertaken, and the seminar on which this blog reports, aims to take the first steps in remedying this lack of evidence, as well as outlining the directions in which we think future research agendas need to go.

Before proceeding, however, a few steps of clarification are needed. Most readers may well be familiar with what is meant by the term ‘community-led housing’ but for those who are not, a useful definition is provided in the CLH Toolkit. It stresses three aspects necessary for any development to be defined as CLH: first – for there to be meaningful engagement throughout the process; second – for a local group to own/manage/steward the development; and third – that the benefits of development are asset-locked to that area.

We were commissioned by Power to Change to undertake a comprehensive review of CLH and health; to investigate what evidence there is that CLH influences both the health of those involved in it and people in the wider neighbourhood. The idea of linking planning, development and built environment factors to health outcomes is not a new one. Substantial research has demonstrated that the built environment has an important effect on people’s wellbeing (see RTPI, 2014, PHE, 2017), and specifically that housing plays a major role in this, with poor quality housing being linked to both mental and physical health problems. The aim of our review, expressed in the seminar and report, was to explore the specific role that CLH does or could play in this agenda.

The 22 participants in our seminar in July 2019 came from a wide range of backgrounds: academics, community activists, those involved already in CLH in various forms, planners and policy-makers. Their participation ensured that the review was open to scrutiny and feedback from other experts, but also began a dialogue about the gaps in existing evidence and ways of improving communication to enhance both practice and understanding.

As the basis for discussion, we outlined four key strands from the literature where a link between CLH and health outcomes can be found. These are each addressed as statements:

– CLH supports healthy aging
– CLH promotes social inclusion
– CLH may lead to improved physical health
– CLH can support people who are disadvantaged or in need of additional support.

Each statement was discussed in a world café-style workshop where each participant had the opportunity to provide input on each statement.

Participants took the debate further by raising the question of how to involve the widest range of people in CLH, but how also to make this equitable and inclusive, rather than intrusive or assuming that all have the same aspirations about where and how they live. They considered how the process of being involved in establishing, developing and building a CLH settlement could change the self-image of a community from being ‘vulnerable’ to ‘empowered’. However caution was raised that CLH may further segregate marginalised groups if the housing is not integrated within a wider neighbourhood too.

Health was viewed as a useful lens by participants who were advocates for CLH – offering the potential to quantify some of the positive outcomes of CLH in a way which would be understood in ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The feeling was that this event marked the start of a conversation – a very lively and engaging one which as chair and timekeeper I had to work hard to keep under control!

The final report has now been published, and we hope it is useful to practitioners, funders and researchers. We also hope it will be a first step in developing new research projects which begin to address the gaps which we have identified. Most of all, we hope that this work plays a small yet important part in changing policy and practice to bring about healthier, happy, more inclusive and more empowered communities through increased control of housing choices and benefits.

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