Owenstown – A Garden City of our time built on co-operative principles

OwenstownBill Nicol is the Project Director of The Hometown Foundation and Owenstown. Bill has 30 years’ experience in planning, economic development and large scale urban regeneration having worked in two local authorities, three enterprise agencies and two public-private partnerships. Prior to taking up the post as Project Director for the Hometown Foundation and Owenstown, he was Head of Property for Scottish Enterprise, Director of Clyde Waterfront and CEO of a pathfinder Urban Regeneration Company. He graduated with a BA (Hons) in Town and Country Planning from Glasgow School of Art in 1984 (MRTPI in 1986) and has since obtained post graduate qualifications in Land Economics, Business Administration and Prince 2 Project Management. Bill is a Trustee of Workspace for Artists Scotland and an Ambassador for Ocean Youth Trust Scotland.

Background

In recent years, the UK has been the subject of significant austerity measures in an attempt to rebalance the books. Over the same period there has been increasing unease that practical solutions are not being presented by the current political class to address the country’s social and economic problems. The housing crisis presents one manifestation of the “broken system” where, in simple terms, there are not enough good quality affordable houses to satisfy current demand, in certain areas. Compounding this problem, high housing costs have drained finance out of the economy through house and land price inflation.

In recent times Garden Cities, as originally espoused by Sir Ebenezer Howard (Garden Cities of To-morrow, 1902) have been suggested as a potential antidote to this problem.

The Vision

As there is a real need and considerable scope for original and progressive thinking, Owenstown is a pioneering proposal for a new settlement, which represents a holistic, exciting and practical evolution of the original Garden City concept. The model not only builds upon planned physical place making and the “value capture model”, as deployed at the new town of Letchworth in 1903, by Howard, but also provides a wider social and economic philosophy based on integrated co-operative principles.

The approach embraces the Garden City model as a sound starting point, but then incorporates refreshed ideas from social reformers such as Robert Owen (A New Vision of Society, 1813) and contemporary co-operative theories, in order to make greater steps towards a “better and fairer society”, recognising the value of ownership, horizontal democracy and active citizenship.

Owenstown, blends the two approaches: the Garden City Movement and the Co-operative Movement, something which was not originally implemented at Letchworth. This is a subtle but very important aspect of the approach being adopted, since it is the relationship between what is being delivered (a planned Garden City settlement) and how it is being delivered (by co-operative means), which provides the fertile and untapped interplay that gives rise to significantly greater social, economic and financial benefits.

Unlike most conventional private and public sector led approaches, the proposal is to advance a local democratic solution and to build a co-operative settlement, which will be self-contained, self-funded, self-governed, self-owned and built by popular consent.

Although the project is site specific and addresses a rural housing problem in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, the model and many of its component parts could equally be applied to “hot spots” across the country and further afield.

Owenstown will be developed and delivered without the need for any public sector support. To date, the Hometown Foundation, a Scottish Charity established by a small group of philanthropic businessmen, has purchased 2,500 acres (1,011.7ha) of land, which will be gifted to pump-prime the settlement.

This innovative project will be financed through a combination of:

  • value capture – from the uplift in land value once planning consent has been obtained (the land was acquired at agricultural value in 2007);
  • asset creation – residential property, commercial property, infrastructure, serviced land;
  • income streams from proposed assets – property, services, utilities; and
  • capital investment – from social and commercial investors.

In addition, income will be derived from commercial co-operative activities, which will provide a basis for investment return, as well as from direct investment by individuals and smaller groups, as a means of sustaining future reinvestment of profits. The community will also have its own banking system, encouraging saving and lowering the cost of borrowing.

Garden City creators need to take a long term, holistic and inclusive approach to ensure that the town/city continues to refresh and grow. In the case of Owenstown, the settlement will be democratically owned and controlled in order to derive affordability, economic viability and resilience for its inhabitants. It is considered that the co-operative place making model is an exciting and radical alternative base from which to deliver a Garden City. The proposed corporate structure is an Industrial and Provident Society, based on charitable rules.

The group structure will have three operating companies:

  • development company – which will undertake trading activities with profits being covenanted to the society;
  • management company – which will manage and maintain all assets in its ownership such as homes for rent, recycling, transport company etc.; and
  • an energy services company.

Owenstown Co-operative Limited will therefore be a developer, builder, manager and operator with all benefits captured, ring-fenced and retained in the town. Wealth creation will be recycled to cross-fund non-commercial activity, underpinning overall economic viability and future proofing the development.

Despite only a limited amount of soft marketing taking place on the website, there has been a significant amount of residential and commercial interest. Some 1,500 requests have been made from individuals and companies wanting to live and work in the new settlement. These individuals, from the UK and beyond, are attracted by the unique and alternative offering – access to affordable housing, shared values and beliefs, community-orientated employment with active citizens supporting a greater sense of well-being and support of “the common good”.

The way in which the co-operative settlement will be governed, will protect all interests of the inhabitants with everyone having a share in the running of the town and its various subsidiaries.

As part of the pre-planning and planning application, there has been a considerable amount of public consultation. With the exception of a handful of individuals, there has been unanimous support. Many aspects embed the settlement into the local and regional areas, such as social and economic investment, employment and training prospects, supply chain enhancement and community benefit clauses.

The project principle has the support of the Scottish Government, the Board of Co-operative Development Scotland and the Co-operative Hub, which is part of The Co-operative Group.

2 Comments on Owenstown – A Garden City of our time built on co-operative principles

  1. George Hunter // March 5, 2014 at 6:43 pm // Reply

    In an age where new ideas are in short supply, I must say it is heartening to hear of new approaches that are so well considered, whilst pushing perceived boundaries and trialling new solutions based on community minded principles and true (and importantly) transparent sustainability. I wish Mr Nicol and the Hometown foundation every success in their venture.

  2. Anne Casey // March 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm // Reply

    It gladdens your heart to hear of initiatives like this; none of the tired approaches that promised much and delivered little in the 90s. Holistic approaches need to be in place to deliver lasting change and not depend on ever decreasing grant funding. I hope that you keep us up to date on developments Bill.

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