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Could co-housing be the solution for a happy old age? Lettie McKie meets the pioneering women of OWCH.

This article appeared in issue 470 (Autumn/Winter 2017) of The Journal of The London Society.

Sometimes a seemingly small project comes along that is so successful that its reputation defies its size. Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH), the UK’s first senior co-housing community in High Barnet, is one of those schemes.

Nineteen years in the making, the OWCH community for women over 50 finally moved into Pollard Thomas Edwards’ award- winning New Ground building in late 2016. The scheme, on Union Street in Barnet, is made up of 25 homes built around a central garden with shared facilities including common room, guest suite and laundry.

OWCH are pioneers, as older women who have fulfilled their own housing needs for later life. Unlike the vast majority of senior housing schemes in the UK, where the older generation are so o en seen to be in need of being provided for by relatives or the social care system, OWCH are defined by the fact that they have retained control, fighting for the type of home and shared life they wanted.

What makes this scheme so unusual, in this country at least, is that OWCH is a group who came together long before they had a building to move into.

OWCH started in 1998 when project consultant Maria Brenton ran workshops for an audience of older women based on research she had done for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into Dutch co-housing. Six women from this original group decided to pursue the idea of creating their own home together based on the Dutch model, meeting for years before a suitable site was secured. Out of this group Shirley Meredeen, now 86, is the only founding member who now lives at New Ground.

Why did such an exemplary scheme take so long to come to fruition? Maria cites the lack of land available for housing and the rigidity of the planning system as wider influencing factors, listing the many and varied problems that arose even a after they acquired a suitable site. In addition, the local authority blocked the scheme for two years, arguing that there were alms houses and sheltered housing in the area already for elderly residents and fearing that the women might become an additional burden on the borough.

Eventually the scheme was developed by Hanover Housing Association with capital grant funding for eight social-rental flats from the Tudor Trust, an organisation that champions self-determining communities of older people. e 17 other ats are 250 year leaseholds owned by their occupants.

Community life

Maria, not herself a resident, describes how transformational the move, which began in December 2016, has been: ‘Most of the OWCH residents lived alone for a long time before moving in. One had lived 46 years on her own on a council estate without knowing her neighbours or having access to an outside space. Now she is an equal partner involved in the daily life of the community with a ready-made set of friends. She keeps on getting told off for being too happy about the place.'

Co-housing goes further than co- operative home ownership in that it is a type of social architecture where groups form intentional communities coalescing around shared values that are clearly articulated.

OWCH’s values are simple but integral to the life of the building. All members sign up to living in a community based on mutual acceptance, respect, shared responsibility and cooperation. The scheme is exclusively for women over 50 and all residents are OWCH members, accepted by the existing group through a selection process. Crucial to the success of this set-up is the mix of ages; it is hoped that when vacancies become available, new members will come in at the lower end of the 50–80 years age range.

Day-to-day responsibilities of the community, such as communal meal rotas and gardening, are managed by smaller groups, which report to the main self-management structure. Thus, everybody contributes by way of friendly neighbourliness: ‘Not looking after each other but looking out for each other,' as Maria puts it.

The success of the building’s design is that it ensures privacy whilst enabling social interaction to happen naturally. Architect Patrick Devlin of Pollard Thomas Edwards says: ‘ e group were heavily involved in the design process, remaining key influencers throughout in open dialogue with us as architects. They pushed very strongly for the features they wanted. All flats have daylight from both sides and the building has long, generous corridors that encourage sociability.’ The result, as one resident put it: ‘The whole place feels like home.'

In the UK, where housing for older people has a poor reputation, stories like that of OWCH seem like tiny pin pricks of light on a dark horizon. Patrick says: ‘It was people planning to move into their last home and celebrating this. OWCH will inspire other people to take control of what they are doing, becoming inter-dependent; it’s a template for what we want to offer older people.'

Although London has a long history of more traditional care communities such as the Chelsea Pensioners, OWCH is clear that co-housing is not for everyone. e social commitment does not suit all temperaments, and there is an added nancial risk of buying a property that is tied in to a co-housing model where there are restrictions on who you can sell to.

Moving forward

The 2009 HAPPI Report (Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation) found that: ‘The younger old represent a massive growing and unsatisified market. New interest should be focussed on attractive, spacious and manageable housing for people approaching retirement. 'These ‘younger old’, the baby boomer generation, want to remain active and in control of their own choices for as long as possible.

But, as the report shows, current options rarely fulfil these needs, o en leading to social isolation. The choice for older people is usually between staying in a loved home that is increasingly unsuitable for their needs or finding their autonomy stripped away in safer, but potentially stultifying, sheltered accommodation. Contrary to Barnet Council's fears, the HAPPI report found that inter- dependent communities such as OWCH can actually relieve the strain on local authority social-care budgets.

Co-housing is only one of many possible solutions to a happier old age but it could make a much larger contribution to senior housing in London if only it weren’t so di cult to achieve in the UK.

The community-led housing movement is growing in in uence in this country with £60m of government funding made available in December 2016 to generate new co-housing and other co-operative schemes nationally. OWCH are keen for others to bene t from their experience, consulting on the GLA’s new Homes for Londoners Community Housing Hub. Funded with £450k from the authority and several London boroughs, the hub will provide co-housing groups, community land trusts and co- operatives with the expert advice they need to follow OWCH’s example.

This is a welcome step, making it easier for people to succeed in their ambitions for establishing self-built communities, whatever their age.