Share your wealth for a while
Opinion piece by David Mowat
‘AEOB house people’ needs people now. Offer some of your savings to buy shares in order to buy land and buildings, to make a model social housing community in Bristol.
I’m in this project waist-deep.
Numbers on spread sheets make my eyes wobble. ‘Business’ feels uncomfortable; I earn less than £8,000 a year through my bits and bobs of freelancing. I can barely put up a shelf, let alone a house.
So why do I find this scary project exciting?
I used to feel guilty about having more than enough when others struggled. Over the years I learned how the so-called free market advantages those with assets in the bank or buildings whilst disadvantaging those with only their skills to sell.
My parents in mid-retirement sold a house in Kent to buy one in Somerset in 1990. The price difference meant they could give me a good deposit on a house in Bristol which I bought for £39,500 in 1992. 20 years later the low mortgage is paid off. The house is now worth on this ‘free market’ about £150,000.
Meanwhile a fellow parent-a qualified civil pilot- at my daughter’s nursery in East Bristol can only find work in call centres and retail outlets. He struggles to pay his rent. He would not get or be able to afford a mortgage.
This state of affairs is unjust. It’s been compounded by governments (begun under Thatcher and continued by the Tories in New Labour guise) who’ve transferred thousands of public assets, council houses, into private hands. So there’s a huge shortage of affordable housing. And it’s significantly helped increase the divide in Bristol between the Have’s, largely in the north and west of the city, and the Have Less largely in the inner city, east and south.
Meanwhile Mr guilty has, along with many of my class, become disillusioned with the banking system. I was pressurized into getting an endowment mortgage which brings a fraction of what was alluringly promised. What savings I have earn nothing in a system that crashed and lost its dynamism, its capacity to lend for the common good.
I had already taken a so-called ‘ethical’ endowment policy. This is the passive ethics of avoiding the quick-growth but dodgy armaments, tobacco and extractive companies. What could I, a prudent radical, actively be for? How can I turn guilt into useful geld?
What can I practically contribute to, to help make a more equitable world when governments have failed in their duty of care? Politics is often a game of safely blaming others.
What better and more direct a way might there be to use my savings constructively when banks have lost my confidence?
As a free-lance community worker I had been running reconciliation laboratories for a while at Saint Stephen’s church in Bristol when, last autumn, I asked if there were any rich or poor people at my Quaker Meeting willing to help find a way through the wealth divide in Bristol. “I’m a millionaire” piped up the chap sat next to me, “I’ll come to your meeting”.
Now in ‘Rec Labs’ we sit in a space my colleague Tim Higgins at Saint Stephen’s Church describes as liminal and sacred. Instead of debating or exchanging views we create an atmosphere of deep listening and honest telling of our stories. In one theme or another we’re exploring ways through conflicts which over years have become encrusted into the very fabric of the city. What emerges is often surprising.
AEOB was born in such a gathering last November. It wants to be a practical expression of reconciling this wealth-poor divide. It’s had various twists and turns. We’ve looked at the experience of the community-builders at the old South Bristol College site in Bedminster, heard from squatters and learned from Stonesfield Community Trust www.stonesfieldcommunitytrust.org.uk.
People have come and gone and the vision is still being tweaked. Now, as we publish the community share offer we have on board Hari Beales, a young scientist from Brighton with experience in co-housing, Jim Kinnaird, a well-known housing activist and experienced cooperative housing member, Tony Crofts (the millionaire, in terms of property ownership), graduate architect Tom Eddington and myself.
This is only the beginning. We need more people to be on the steering group-especially an accountant or business person. We all have our own livings to earn and lives to lead. There are tensions, for instance between those of us who are more cautious and those mindful of fast-changing markets and the need for decisiveness.
It is hard to draw up a project which demonstrates a return for investors and a completion of loan repayments, yet is affordable to people on modest incomes. It is not absolutely certain your assets would be safe. Read the website and the small print. Ask questions. Judge for yourself.
We do not want to set the blueprint too narrowly. It is the future residents, the real builders of the community, who will help design the details alongside architect Chris Askew and become the real co-managers of this community. Mostly they will be people rich in skills and aspiration if poorer in financial assets. They may well be amongst the 14,000 Bristol people on the council housing waiting list who have little prospect of earning enough points to acquire what little social housing there is.
How they will select themselves or be chosen we have yet to work out. I know I don’t want to be a judge-that is part of the power divide. Experience tells me that those who start out together are not necessarily the ones who stay the course. It will not be an easy ride and the result will be a fair but not necessarily cheap rent. But for those, old and young, able-bodied and disabled, from whatever ethnic or cultural background, who long to be in community in a green housing complex, it will be a rewarding journey.
I think we have to find creative ways to be in community, in dense neighbourhoods. ‘We’re full up’ was the message of residents at a recent Neighbourhood Forum, presented with our ideas. But the crammed-up feelings of individuals jealous of their space might be different when embracing partial community living.
One exciting part of this journey is the prospect of taking part in a European-funded scheme which supports ‘adult learners’ which the team of future residents will be, to learn from other European projects (for instance in Latvia and Portugal) where groups of adults are engaged in community-led projects which pay a dividend of improving skills confidence and know-how.
Where will this model social housing community be? Maybe on a particular site we’ve seen on Whitehall Road East Bristol. Maybe somewhere else.
But first the money. Either way this story is an invitation to you to share your wealth for a while. If you’re like me, drop the guilt and reach for the geld. Make it work for reconciling rich and poor in Bristol and still receive it back for you, your children or grandchildren, some decades later.
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