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There is a desperate need for greater imagination, political will and creativity in our efforts to confront the nation’s housing crisis. A large-scale housing co-operative in Switzerland provides some inspiration for what we may do in the UK.

The current government has vowed on many occasions that it will tackle the UK’s housing crisis and fix the broken housing market. Despite the recent dip in house prices, the value of homes still far outstrips what most people earn through their salaries. Home ownership is becoming out of bounds for more and more people, while the stock of social housing continues to dwindle as a result of decades of government policy.

The consequences of housing failure are alarming. Lack of reliable access to good quality housing can prevent people connecting to job opportunities; affects the recruitment and productivity of companies; can harm community cohesion; disturbs the social and educational development of children; and has harmful effects on health and wellbeing.

There is a lack of imagination in our responses to these challenges, reflected in the poor quality of the housing debate in the UK. As we argued recently, too much of it descends into endless conversations about supply and planning. There is too little strategic and innovative thinking about what sorts of homes we want and need to build a society that is prosperous and inclusive. Homes provide a platform for bringing communities together; where people share space, socialise, eat together and care for each other. But housing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a critical part of a wider social infrastructure that connects people to opportunity and strengthens their civic identities and social networks.

It is precisely this sort of thinking and approach that is driving Switzerland’s ‘More than Housing’ (MtH) initiative in Zurich. MtH is one of the largest housing cooperatives in Europe, the result of collaboration between 50 different cooperatives. It consists of thirteen buildings, 400 housing units, 35 retail units and large shared community spaces and neighbourhood infrastructure. It is deliberately designed to be socially inclusive, offering all types of homes: from family apartments to single units and cluster apartments, and engaging with community organisations to ensure underrepresented groups have access. 

MtH is a large-scale test bed for low-carbon living, with environmental features that go well beyond legal requirements. There are also car and bike-sharing schemes that reduce environmental impacts and build social connection. A culture of participation underpins the whole enterprise, with dialogue, consultation and participation from tenants and the community embedded into every stage of the project. As a cooperative, it is owned by its members.  

MtH also lives up to its name by creating deep links into the wider community and public infrastructure, including joint initiatives with schools and youth workers. Over a tenth of the residents both live and work in the buildings within the project, and 200 are active volunteers that run classes, including language and integration classes.

While innovative and community-led housing is a growing presence in the UK, it’s still a tiny portion of the overall stock. The features of our policymaking structures and institutions are a key reason. In Switzerland, a permissive environment for initiatives such as MtH is created because of a strong policy, cultural and democratic commitment to alternative housing and an appreciation for how it links to wider public priorities. More than 25% of homes in Zurich are not-for-profit (the majority of these owned by cooperatives). In 2011, local people voted to increase the proportion of not-for-profit housing to 33% by 2050.  

Institutional, regulatory and policy changes are certainly required to promote better housing and social policy in the UK. But there’s also a pressing need to have a very different and more participative debate about housing and what sort of homes we need in modern Britain.

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