Building our vision
In the early days of meeting as a group, back in Spring 2018, we decided that converting an existing building would be both difficult and expensive so we committed to a new build. We looked at different tenure options – ownership, shared ownership, rental, or a mixture – and after considering them all we decided to opt for rented houses. Not only does this put residents on an equal footing and make the houses available to all, but it also makes it easier to hand over to future residents.
We spoke to the local housing association about our project and were advised to contact the Orkney Islands Council (OIC) housing department. Fortuitously OIC was already developing ideas with Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen for housing projects in Orkney that would include provision for older people. As a user-group looking to take forward our ideas for cohousing, we were given encouragement and great support by both OIC and RGU. Later we realised the appeal of our commitment: a ready-formed group, full of enthusiasm and a belief in our project, looking to make our vision happen.
Creating a structure
From the outset, we knew that for fundraising and to limit our individual liability, we needed to be a corporate body. With the help of Voluntary Action Orkney, we set up a company limited by guarantee. Later we converted it to a Community Interest Company to better reflect our vision of creating benefit for the community.
We are thinking about filling a funding gap through issuing community shares. This would lead us to change our governance structure again to become a housing co-operative and Community Benefit Society. This might seem to be a lot of chopping and changing, but very few people have set up cohousing projects in Scotland and there is little experience in how to go about it. As a pioneering group, we had no blueprint to follow.
Looking for land and developing plans
We identified sites that were designated for housing in the local village plan. A green-field site that belonged to OIC but was not going to be developed by them lent itself to our brief
We secured feasibility funding from the Scottish Government’s Rural Housing Fund that helped Professor Gokay Deveci at RGU School of Architecture to develop plans. It also funded community consultations around Orkney (see the Orkney News). We started the consultation by raising our profile with local media: Radio Orkney, The Orcadian and Orkney News. Public sessions were very well-attended. We were delighted and encouraged by the positive reception from our community.
Engaging a project co-ordinator
Knowing we had the backing of local authority and community, we next engaged Sacha Woolham as our project co-ordinator. Her skills and energy have rapidly moved us forward. Together with OIC and RGU we developed a bid for Innovate UK’s Healthy Ageing Trailblazer initiative and secured a second-stage interview. This work helped to develop and consolidate our plans. In February 2020 we were invited to attend Rural Housing Scotland’s conference. It was a privilege to present Hope Cohousing to the conference, but it was even more stimulating to meet other groups developing community projects and to learn from their experience. Click to download our presentation.
Working and waiting
In terms of the project’s progress, the predominant theme of recent months has been waiting. We have been holding our weekly meetings online. Our professional team have carried on with the planning and tendering processes, but the COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably had a major effect on progress, for example around gaining planning permission. Here in Orkney, we are seeing building projects underway once more but like everyone else, we are having to adapt to the new challenges presented by COVID and Brexit.
Securing the site
In September 2020 a request for financial assistance that we had previously submitted to OIC was considered by the Policy and Resources Committee. They agreed to provide funds from their Crown Estate allocations and at the same time to reduce the price of the site to match. The transfer of land to Hope Cohousing will become effective when the rest of our funding package is in place. The full council endorsed this decision in October 2020. We are reminded again how very fortunate we are to have a local authority which supports us so constructively and recognises the benefits of cohousing, especially for older people.
Planning permission granted
In March 2020 we submitted a planning application. Issues with drainage on the site had to be resolved. COVID-19 and the months of lockdown made the process a far lengthier one than we could ever have anticipated. We were finally granted planning permission on November 16, 2020.
Our steep learning curve continued as we dealt with building tenders. We went out to a first-stage tender and received two responses from local builders that were both well above budget. Now architect Grigor Mitchell and surveyor Andrew Beedie are revisiting both design and construction methods to bring us back on budget. We are aware, though, that both COVID and Brexit are having an impact on building costs.
Funding the project
Much of project coordinator Sacha Woolham’s work over the past few months has been on financial modelling. She has also been working with Andy Woodcock from Community Shares Scotland on that strand of funding.
Our plan is to make a main fund application to the Scottish Government’s Rural and Island Housing Fund. The announcement that the Fund would be extended beyond its March 2021 deadline came as very welcome news, given that putting funding packages together takes time.
As we learn more about other cohousing projects, it becomes clearer that most of them are owner-occupier led. Our vision of providing affordable rented homes is more challenging financially but is one we are committed to as we seek to realise our ambition of creating a lasting community benefit.