On The Brink Cohousing Community Case Study
The members of On The Brink first came to us in 2014 with a view to buying Brincliffe House in Sheffield for their cohousing group. Brincliffe House was old NHS offices and the group knew that a third party was interested.
After a few weeks of negotiation, the group were disappointed to learn that a commercial buyer had put in an offer. The property was taken off the market before they had a chance to get all their ducks in a row. However, there were other properties that they were interested in and they kept looking.
A few months later, they came back to us as the sale of Brincliffe House to the developer had fallen through. We helped them to buy Brincliffe House to enable them to start their development.
Cohousing legal structure
On The Brink was originally formed as a community interest company, but this isn't usually a suitable structure for cohousing, as it limits what can be done with the property assets, particularly on a winding up. We looked at commonhold for the structure but felt it would not work for On The Brink (and our resulting insights led us to feed into the Law Commission's plans to reform commonhold). It was eventually decided that a company limited by guarantee would give them the flexibility they required. The company would hold the freehold of the property and grant 999 year leases to its resident members.
The planning process was long and drawn out and during that time various members of On The Brink occupied parts of the property which they managed to make very cosy, despite the overall institutional feel. Even though there were people living there and that there was planning permission in place for residential accommodation, the ratings authority still treated the property as a commercial property. This meant that On The Brink had to pay business rates up until the point that the building work on the whole building was started.
Phase 1 of the development was to convert the building into flats and we helped to put 999 year leases into place. To satisfy Charity Bank (who were providing some development finance), we put agreement for leases with development obligations in place between the cohousing company and its members.
Funding the cohousing development
The conversion was funded by the residents' own money, commercial bank loans and significant loans from ‘external supporters’. We worked with On The Brink and Charity Bank to ensure that all these elements of development finance were available when the group needed them.
On The Brink also developed an innovative process whereby members who did not have enough money upfront could rent flats from On The Brink; the rent they pay is offset against the eventual capital payment they would need to pay to buy their flat. The group continues to be inventive and is looking at the possibility of offering a flat to refugees who might otherwise be homeless.
The first phase of the project was completed in 2018 and there are now 16 residents living in 12 flats. It is an inter-generational project, with ages ranging from 5 to 73, united by a wish for companionship, ecological awareness and mutual respect. Each household has their own private living space with communal space for shared cooking, eating, gardening and socialising. When we visited them in summer 2019, there was a thriving vegetable garden which the members could harvest.
There is a second phase planned, which will involve the development of four living units in the grounds of Brincliffe House. The group are currently seeking funding to kickstart the developments of these units.
We have visited the project several times over the last couple of years, and have been really impressed with the friendly atmosphere and positive living environment which On The Brink have created. We particularly liked being invited to their social Friday evening dinner, when one of our team managed to offload her rhubarb glut via a rhubarb crumble contribution. Their hard work and tenacity have paid off, with the result being a sustainable community where people look out for each other.
‘Cohousing projects are very different from each other with a wide range of opportunities and challenges that have to be negotiated. Many of the steps we have had to take along the route to establishing our community would have been just too daunting without professional backup from the specialist cohousing team at Wrigleys.’ Tom Heller (Treasurer of On the Brink)