Steve Harris: Could cohousing solve loneliness?
PUBLISHED: 11:18 02 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:18 02 May 2017
It's a neat idea. A group of like-minded people buy a piece of land and build homes on it and share communal areas. Could this be the perfect solution for downsizing in later years?
Gay Ellis has a system. She tells me when she doesn’t want to be disturbed by the people she lives with - by Bill or Andrew or Peter - she puts a scarf on her door. Anyone who had to share a room at university - or has ever watched a movie about American college life - will be familiar with something similar involving socks on doorknobs. But Gay isn’t getting up to higher education hi-jinks. She’s more likely to be meditating than making out. Gay is 72 years old, and she’s one of the residents of the Threshold Cohousing Centre in Gillingham.
Cohousing was devised in Denmark in the 1960s. It’s a way of artificially encouraging community while preserving residents’ independence and privacy. So when Gay moved here from Cambridge 13 years ago, she downsized from four bedrooms to a compact two-up two-down. In a nearby building she has access to a shared kitchen and a communal dining room where the 15-or-so residents will regularly eat together. Sustainability is also central to this lifestyle; the properties have solar panels, and are heated by a biomass boiler, and there’s a rule that each of the 14 homes is only allowed one petrol vehicle. There’s a garden to tend with a polytunnel and a compost toilet. But this is as much Ab Fab as The Good Life; for Gay’s birthday there was champagne on the lawn at sunset.
The Gillingham scheme is built around an old farm. Gay’s home is a converted stable. However, another cohousing project 40 miles south west of here, which has been in the works for nine years, will be all new.
“There’s a joke. We’re always two years away from starting work,” Monica King, Chair of the Bridport Cohousing Community Land Trust tells me. We’re stood next to the 4.5 acre field in which 34 one- to four-bedroom homes will be built. “In the spring we’ll be starting to dig here and it’ll be a year – whilst the build is on – before we move in.”
I understand why these projects take time. They’re usually driven by passionate amateurs and working with land owners, developers and planners can be challenging. Monica has devoted four days a week to this scheme for most of the last decade. But she’s confident the end result will be worth it - a new community in Bridport where people share time together and look out for each other. The homes will be protected by a covenant so they must be sold to local people for below the market rate.
Cohousing might not be for everyone - hermits, Monica jokes, wouldn’t like it. But in creating pleasant environments with smaller properties, it offers older homeowners a viable option for downsizing. Then there’s the issue of loneliness and isolation. Of course, that’s not just a problem for older people, but according to the most recent figures the number of over-65s living alone has increased by 15% in the last 20 years. In places like these it’s reassuring for residents and their families to know that there’s always a friendly face next door. Just remember to check for the scarf before knocking.
• Steve Harris: My relation to Lawrence of Arabia - Researching your family tree can reveal fascinating ancestors and, in this particular case, it located a relative lost on a battlefield in northern France in 1916