'We're all in this together': The latest in contemporary communal living

Share your car, share childcare costs, share energy bills and share your organic allotment, but still enjoy the privacy of your own home.

Michael Geddings serves beetroot soup freshly made from the organic garden, and beams through his bushy beard at the others seated around the table. They are not his family as such, but he regards them as his nearest and dearest, the people he has committed to live among at the Threshold Centre in Gillingham, Dorset.

Threshold, which used to be farm and before that, a Saxon settlement, is now one of the burgeoning communal housing projects being set up around the country, where groups of like-minded people have chosen to create their own communities. The guiding principles are sharing and caring but also privacy and autonomy. So no, they are not 1960s-style communes of wild excess and the ideological insistence that everything from wheatgerm shampoo to sexual partners are common property.

Sarah Berger, a founder member of the Co-Housing Network, which advises people on setting up projects and operates a network for those interested, explains that "the idea of communal housing came about because people wanted an antidote to the isolation and alienation in society where you may not even know your neighbours, let alone have a friendly, supportive community. We wanted to live among like-minded people and enjoy companionship but we also own separate homes where we can shut the front doors and choose to be private if we wish. We are not alternatives rejecting everything in conventional society, or Moonie-style ideologues, just ordinary people who want a lifestyle with humanity at its core."

All the projects so far include a communal building which is used for activities which individuals initiate, ranging from tango and yoga to permaculture and ancient Greek. There's also a strong concern about the environment, which means shared laundry facilities, car pools, organic gardens farmed by residents, and regular meals cooked from the produce and eaten communally.

It all sounds very nice if you can get it, but isn't this a middle-class dream available only to those with money? After all, the communal housing projects already up and running such as Laughton Lodge in Lewes, a complex of apartments converted from a mental institution, with light, roomy apartments and patios on the property's 23 acres of rural land, only came into being because potential residents had capital to invest in buying properties to convert, or a site to build on. Plus money to pay for architects, the planning process, and then building costs.

Berger acknowledges this, but the Communal Housing Network has been campaigning for those providing homes for low-income families to get involved. "Our vision has always been that communal housing should have mixed-tenure," she says.

In January, that vision was made reality at the Threshold Centre, when it became the only communal housing project in the country to open its doors to low-income renting tenants. So now at Threshold, with its panoramic view of fields and woods, half the 14 inhabitants who live in the circle of homes looking out on to a shared lawn dotted with flower beds have come through the local Synergy housing association.

Tina Smale is one, and she talks appreciatively of the welcome she was given saying emphatically. "Not for a moment have I been made to feel different because I haven't been able to buy my home."

Tina has lived in a variety of housing association houses and flats. "I kept moving on, but never really fitting in. If you are a tenant you have no say over who you have to live among. My partner Kerry and I rented privately once, but we simply couldn't afford it. I knew about communal housing, but because we don't have much money we assumed it wasn't an option. But when we heard that Threshold had a vacancy we approached them and learnt that we could get a housing association place."

Tina's good fortune owes much to the initiative of Alan Heeks, a founder of Threshold, who worked closely with Richard Sanders at Synergy, which invested in converting still uninhabitable farm buildings for their tenants. Now that Threshold, the pilot scheme, is seen to be successful Heeks is working with Sanders developing a 30-home mixed-tenure housing project in Bridport.

Sanders's enthusiasm for offering communal housing as an option to their tenants, was "hugely valuable," says Heeks, but if the radical possibility of it becoming a nationwide option is to happen, it will need housing associations across the country to come on board.

There are signs this may happen. At the Hanover Housing Association, which specialises in accommodation for elderly people, they are working with a communal housing project for women only and at the Lifetime project in West Yorkshire, which has 12 to 20 homes. These, says Hanover chief executive Brian Moore, are for people who "want a co-operative and self-responsible life style for their later years where they can age safely and enjoyably and in a community they feel is theirs".

Sanders is convinced that communal housing could shoulder the cost and strain from social services for those people who suffer from loneliness and depression. For parents in mixed-generational communities there is the bonus of in-built childcare. At Laughton on the day I visited, a group of children of all ages were playing on a giant climbing frame in the garden and in the trees, with chatter and laughter echoing around. For the elderly, when they become infirm the advantages are clear, says Moore. "And even when someone gets dementia, if they are among people who know and care for them, they will be supported in a way that doesn't happen in society generally." Several communal housing projects are working towards having accommodation for the elderly with health facilities on site.

Moore knows too that they have to overcome the suspicion, which may well be stronger in older people, that communal housing "will mean living hugger-mugger in a lentil-eating community full of people trying to convert them to philosophies they don't want". Yet the Lifetime group, which came together through a shared interest in music, are, he says, delighting in sharing ideas on how they will decorate, garden, set up a shared shopping scheme and so on.

The Government's Localism Bill, which would allow local groups to build on land not designated for housing if they can get 80 per cent approval from their local community, could streamline and speed up the business of taking the dream of communal housing to fruition, says Heeks.

But so far, as all the established projects have found, the process of getting planning permission has been protracted and difficult. David Michael, who founded Springhill in Stroud, Gloucestershire, with 34 new timber-clad houses and apartments, and which went on to receive the 2006 Eurosolar UK Award, and Berger at Laughton Lodge, learnt that local opposition can be a particular barrier.

Walking me through a field of chickens towards private homes flanking Springhill, Michael tells me how neighbours who are now entirely positive about them were deeply suspicious in the beginning, and a great deal of taking on board objections, and adjusting plans had to be done before planning permission was given.

Berger tells how Laughton came up against concerted Nimbyism. "There was a protest petition signed by 200 local people. I suspect they thought we were dope-smoking hippies or planning to import a guru and indulge in all kinds of strange practices," she says. The Laughton group became instantly proactive in explaining what they did – and did not – plan to do. They won the the locals over, got planning permission and now Berger laughs: "People from outside come to activities and events, they form a large part of our choir, most of our children go to the local school and we are even on the parish council."

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