Say the word ‘almshouses’ and most will conjure up a vision of a small one-storey historic building for the old and infirm of the parish, and supported by wealthy charitable benefactors, causes or Livery Companies.
Never one to rest on its laurels, the almshouse fraternity is moving with the times. There is a growing interest in how the philosophy of the almshouse could be adopted to support the delivery of greater levels of social housing
At the heart of the almshouse movement are the individual Trustees, invariably long-standing members of the local community, who understand local need and are able to respond for the greater good.
Rather than standing at arms-length from the provision of accommodation, the Trustees are at the heart of the decision-making and successful running of a given almshouse. It is for this reason that almshouses can arguably make a significant contribution to the wellbeing of a community, especially those in rural areas, as part of the solution to tackling housing supply.
It is about matching local knowledge with local need. With the Trustees overseeing the Nomination Rights, in essence deciding who lives in a development, it is possible to help build strong local communities.
Moving with the times
The majority of new almshouses are designed for those of retirement age and are single storey, as we did for The Roger Manwood Trust in Canterbury, which recently won the Patron’s Award from the Almshouse Association.
However, adopting lifts and labour-saving devices means that almshouses can be built to the same heights as other residential developments. The limiting factors will inevitably be budget and planning constraints.
It is also important that we focus on the needs of other groups within society and not just the elderly - our young people and those with young families can equally benefit from almshouses. A good example is the Harefield Parochial Charities, the innovative scheme which secured a Patron’s Award back in 2009. Located on a former dairy farm north-west of London, the scheme successfully makes the transition between village housing and the Green Belt reminiscent of farmstead housing. A total of 14 two, three and four bedroom homes for young local families are arranged in courtyard form, sharing many architectural themes with historic almshouse complexes.
Moving into the provision of accommodation for other groups will start to blur the edges of traditional almshouse provision, but it can be achieved.
Supporting specific communities
The recently opened RBLI apartments near Aylesford for veterans, in effect almshouses in everything but name, now offer 24 tenants flexible living space, wet rooms, lift access and importantly a second room for either another bedroom or study.
The RBLI apartments are specifically designed for veterans who are wounded, injured, sick, or at risk of homelessness. In this instance the new apartments were funded by RBLI, government grants and donations from the Morrisons Foundation, ABF – The Soldiers’ Charity, Garfield Western Foundation and Chelsea Barracks Foundation.
In some cases, like the almshouses at Harefield, the accommodation is a stepping stone provision.
Working with local authorities
There remains a job to do when it comes to making local authorities more aware of how almshouse charities can help support the social housing agenda by acting as the social housing provider in new developments. What is potentially holding back the greater adoption of the almshouse model is the need for local authorities, rather than the almshouse charity Trustees, to hold the Nomination Rights.
It’s time for a change, argues the Clague team, and to recognise that the almshouse movement has proven its sustainability over the centuries as an effective form of community housing, and is a role which could, taking lessons from the past, ensure they are practical for the future, and easily be expanded to contribute towards the growing housing need.
Posted on | by Pat Mills