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Sharing the Good Life - Communal Living

PUBLISHED: 15:45 26 February 2010 | UPDATED: 08:35 28 March 2014

Communal living

Communal living

One way to make smallholding more affordable is to share with others. Here, Sarah Bunker starts a new series on communal living. It is an option that offers many benefits for those seeking to embark on ‘the good life’

One way to make smallholding more affordable is to share with others. Here, Sarah Bunker starts a new series on communal living. It is an option that offers many benefits for those seeking to embark on ‘the good life’

If you’re into the idea of smallholding or being more self-sufficient, one route is to join or set up an intentional community where you can get together with other like-minded people to share land and other resources.

This can make the dream more affordable, as well as offering all sorts of other advantages, such as people to share the fun and work of such a lifestyle, shared expertise, the ability to take breaks without worrying about looking after animals or watering plants, economies of scale and daunting jobs made easier.

This article looks at communal living in the UK, warts and all, what it means to live in an intentional community in the 21st century, and how easy it is to join one or set one up yourself.

Let’s start by clearing up some terminology. Communal living is a situation in which people choose to share living space and material things, and this can range broadly from a few shared facilities to shared incomes and lives.

An intentional community is one that is arrived at by choice, rather than the unintentional community of co-workers, or households in a street. Members of an intentional community live together because they share ideals, whether it is to have as little impact on the planet as possible, to be able to worship together, to run a business together, to support direct action or any number of other pursuits.

This feeling of a shared cause brings about mutual support which is similar to the old ‘sense of community’, traditionally based on family ties and familiarity in close-knit and non-mobile populations. Some of those who search for community today are looking for a new version of this old model, but many others are idealists in one way or another, looking for the support of like-minded people.
A commune is an intentional community that lies at the most communal end of the spectrum, with shared income and possessions and group decision-making for general and intimate affairs. It can be seen as a type of idealised family group, and few operate today in the UK.


History

Humans have lived communally for the majority of their existence, but, since the development of civilisation, the custom has become less common.

In his book Utopia Britannica, Chris Coates investigates the history of utopias and communal living in the UK. He looks at some of the different threads that have given rise to utopian experiments – from Christian dissenters to artistic colonies.

An early band, who are still talked about, were the Diggers who, in 1649, planted common land with vegetables and cereals, maintaining that the earth was a ‘common treasury’ which should be shared, not made private.

Since then, many religious and political sects have attempted communal living as a way to create their own personal utopias.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when ‘alternative technology’ was born, very much in an environment of rural communities, where simple technologies which harvested freely-available energy from sun, wind and water were developed.

These communities were often based in farmhouses or large country houses in need of massive maintenance.

Their members practised self-reliance, growing their own food, keeping animals for meat, milk and fleece, learning many skills along the way. Many of them, such as Old Hall in Suffolk, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, or Laurieston in Scotland, still thrive to this day.


Types

There are so many different communities in this country, it is difficult to categorise them. There are religious and secular, rural and urban, large and small, high-tech new-build co-housing schemes and low-impact settlements.

Communities come in all shapes and sizes, from those with over 300 members to those with a handful. Some aim for a quiet green lifestyle, others campaign internationally, some run businesses, others are happy to simply have secure housing.

Diggers & Dreamers 2008/2009 lists 94 UK communities but, based on experience and a large database, there are probably more like 700 in existence in the UK today, with the number remaining surprisingly steady.


Advantages and drawbacks of living communally

As in the rest of life, there are advantages and disadvantages to all aspects of living together. Shared child-care can give peace of mind and free you up to do other things, but what if you don’t agree with other parents’ tolerance levels? Shared decision-making seems prudent and equitable in a communal living setting, but the price you may pay is discussion of minutae in drawn-out meetings. It is possible to live comfortably on a very low income in community, but this can lead to getting caught in a poverty trap. Children can have wonderful freedom to experience a safe and exciting rural environment, but will you see enough of them? Only having to cook once a fortnight might seem liberating, but suppose you don’t get on with the cooking or ingredients of others?

For those who choose to live communally, however, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Living in a big house with big grounds, with a ready-made set of friends and companions, learning all sorts of new practical skills, being collectively responsible for your own housing, eating bountiful fresh veg, lowering your carbon footprint, organising new ventures together – what could be more of an adventure?

Taking it Further

If you’re intrigued with the idea of communal living, why not visit some communities and decide whether this could be the life for you? The cross-index in Diggers & Dreamers, is a good place to start. It looks at different aspects of community, such as diet, religion (if any), whether capital is required, etc. From this you should be able to draw up a shortlist, and then look at those communities’ entries in the main directory – in the book or on the website. You may be influenced by geographical location, but some people embark on a ‘Grand Tour’.

Visiting

Visitors are welcomed for fresh ideas, interest and energy plus, of course, valuable help with the work. They are also the source of new members: a vital consideration for most communities.

Different communities have different approaches towards welcoming new people. Some places will have visitor weekends, and discourage visitors at other times because a continuous flow of new faces sometimes makes their home feel more like a hostel. Other places will have visitors almost all the time, but they usually try to make sure that there are no more than a couple of new people at any one time so that they don’t feel swamped.

Don’t just turn up. The important thing to remember is that a community is home for its members, and it can feel less than comfortable to have your home filled with uninvited guests. Write briefly, explaining who you are and what you’re looking for. It may be that a particular community can tell straightaway that it’s not the place for you but, if that’s not the case, they’ll usually reply with more detailed information. If, after reading it, you still want to visit, then you can arrange a time.

Another great way to visit communities and contribute to your stay is to join WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) – many communities welcome WWOOF volunteers.

Do remember that however you find a community on your first visit, it isn’t always like that. You may hit a lively and creative spot, or a time when communards are ‘peopled-out’ and hide in their burrows.

Probably your greatest impression will come from the ‘vibe’ of the place, but there are a few things you should look out for:

How is the land and property owned?

Is it in the control of the community?

How secure is it? Do you ‘buy in’? And if so, how?

What legal structures are in place for members?

Are there any internal rules, and if so, how are they enforced?

How is money managed in the community? Is it realistic?

What happens when people are ill? What about growing old in community?


The ‘P’ word

A lot of visitors are completely gob-smacked by the huge potential of communities they visit – there just seems to be so much space! Surely this building is ripe for conversion, and a forest garden would cut down garden labour? But this “p-word” may well be banned in internal conversation. The reason is that it’s often very difficult to bring together all the components (time, energy, money, etc) when a lot of the members are submerged in ‘just living communally’. So if it’s, say, building or business development that inspires you, check out the priority that other members give to these areas.

If you find a community you would like to live in, most places have a joining procedure which has evolved to allow careful choice of new potential members; it may take several months to join a community, or there may not be space, in which case you will have to wait until there is room.


How about creating your own community?

Perhaps you’ve visited a few communities, but not found something which suits you, or you want to create something closer to home. You really don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but is it possible to set up a community in this day and age, or is it a thing of the past?

If you start from scratch, it will probably take at least a couple of years to pull something together – if it’s taking more than five years, you need to ask yourself if it really is going to happen, and if the right ingredients (people, money, aims, location, property/ land) are there.

Getting it Together: People, Money & Structures

The main ingredients needed for setting up a community are: people, aims, money, structure, and property/land.
Invariably, it is the people, with their own aims, who come first. People can ‘dream’ endlessly about the type of place they would like to live, but when it comes to ‘digging’, a major reality barrier is reached. It seems that money, structure and property/land lie on the far side of this barrier, and it is here that most groups founder.

The earlier a structure can be set up, the easier it will be to raise finance – and finance will certainly affect the choice of property. The reality barrier is also a commitment barrier, and results in reducing the size of the initial ‘dreaming’ group.

How do I find other people?

A major problem is finding committed, like-minded people. You may be starting off with a group of friends, or you may wish to advertise right from the start. Many groups start with ‘open’ meetings (at least, open within a certain interest group) and at some point close the group. A continuously open group can be very wearing as each new member will want to have their own input recognised, which can result in constantly changing aims.

A closed group needing more members will have to decide how to select members and how to integrate them into an established group.

The optimum size of group has been discussed endlessly. It depends a great deal on the kind of community you envisage, because there are groups out there of all different sizes. At the beginning, there will be more paperwork and dealing with officials than later, and there need to be enough people confident with this to share the load. As the group size increases, it will be more difficult to come to decisions, but more people to action them will help keep the impetus going, and the group will be less likely to fizzle out.


What Legal Structures Do We Need?

Most communities find that they need about the same amount of structure as a small business. This may include a set of rules for the group as an entity (eg Memorandum & Articles for a limited company, constitution for an Industrial & Provident Society); secondary rules which are specific to the particular group; a mortgage; a business loan. And along with this comes the necessary paperwork – minutes of meetings, book keeping, cash-flow forecasts, etc. So there seems little escape from the ‘real’ world!
 
Although it seems like more bureaucracy, these structures are a way of stopping things getting really messy! And it’s a way of interacting with the larger system in which we are submerged. For example, a bank will not be willing to lend money to a group without a copy of that group’s legal structure and a convincing cash-flow forecast. As well as being an interaction mechanism, legal structures help to clarify things: especially in the worst-case scenario, when they really come into their own.


Where can we get the money from?

Sources of money are pretty similar to those you might consider if you were starting your own business. First there are the members of the group – and there have been many large properties or co-housing schemes bought from funds raised by individuals selling their own houses. In this case, the way in which the money is pooled is important – it must be possible for people to extract money if they want to leave, but they must do it in such a way that the community doesn’t go into financial crisis each time someone goes. One method of avoiding early destabilisation is to ask for non-refundable deposits to cover initial costs.

Loan stock is a common method of pooling cash used by communities, and another possibility is to arrange a private mortgage between the commune and a member who could have security on part of the property. If you can’t borrow from within the group, think about approaching friends or relatives before you go to a bank.

There is more choice these days in ‘ethical’ lenders, such as the Environmental Building Society, Triodos, the Co-op Bank, or the Unity Bank. Loans can be paid back through rent, and business plans for such a venture are straightforward and a relatively safe bet. A really specific lender in this area is Radical Routes (see box). Local Credit Unions may be another possibility. If your organisation is a registered charity, then it is worthwhile approaching trusts. There may also be ways of (positively) exploiting landfill tax legislation or feed-in tariffs for renewable energy schemes.

Strong communities, whether intentional or not, are our best insurance for an uncertain future – environments where we are supported and find a sense of meaning: places where our own character and skills are appreciated by others. The more we have, and the more varied they are, the better.

Writer

Sarah Bunker has a PhD in biomechanics and an MA in fine art, and has been an illustrator, writer and editor. In 1989 she moved to Beech Hill community, where she learned how to grow unfeasibly large parsnips, how to trim sheep’s feet and how to love sewage! She has been a Diggers & Dreamers editor for 13 years. In 2006, she left Beech Hill to pursue art at Falmouth, but has moved back to Mid Devon because there simply isn’t enough mud in Cornwall.

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