Dreamers make own version of Good Life come true

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ESTATE agents are fond of describing the houses they’re trying to sell as “dream homes”.

However for two properties currently on the market in West Yorkshire, the description seems particularly apt – although thankfully, there is not an estate agent in sight.

The two family-sized houses are the final units available in the groundbreaking Lilac scheme in Leeds, the UK’s first ever “affordable ecological co-housing project” and the product of an unfathomable amount of hard work from a group of friends who have pursued this particular dream for many years.

Fed up with the lack of community spirit in their neighbourhoods, with the lack of environmentally-friendly housing stock, and with the sheer cost of buying a property in 21st-century Britain, this collection of teachers, medical professionals and other ordinary folk began to discuss building their own community along more sustainable lines, right here in Yorkshire.

Plans were drawn up, land was sought, grants and permission applied for and obtained – and now the dream is at last becoming a reality.

Work will finally get under way next month on the development of 20 specially-designed “eco-homes” in Bramley, complete with a shared living area, buildings made of timber and straw-bales, allotments, solar panels, car and bike-share schemes and a host of other sustainable measures.

“We’ll be on site next month,” said Paul Chatterton, a geography teacher at Leeds University, and one of the co-founders of the Lilac – Low Impact Living Affordable Community – scheme.It is hard to believe in a way.”

He has watched the scheme grow from just a handful of people to more than 30 residents and 18 of the 20 properties have now been leased to individuals and families who have bought into Lilac’s three-pronged ethos of affordability, community spirit and regard for the environment.

Just a three-bedroom house and a four-bedroom house remain.

“I’ve always wanted to live in a straw-bale house ever since I saw a Grand Designs episode, with Ben Law building his beautiful straw and timber home in the New Forest,” said Amanda Crossfield, a 37-year-old climate change advisor to a local water company. “But I never thought it would be possible for me, living in urban Leeds.”

The straw-and-timber frames of the buildings – guaranteed both water and fire-proof – lock in CO2 and make the walls of the properties carbon-negative.

But even more unusual than the materials used is the shared-equity scheme by which members lease their properties.

Each house is owned by the co-operative, with residents leasing them for 35 per cent of their net household income, effectively buying shares in the co-op with each payment.

These can be sold back if and when people move on – meaning they have built up capital to spend elsewhere. Crucially, no deposit is required.

“I work full-time but I’m priced out of the housing market – I just don’t have the huge deposit required to buy my own home,” Ms Crossfield said.

“Lilac offers me the opportunity to have an equity stake in a beautiful eco-home, with the added bonus of also being part of a community.”

That community aspect is central to what Lilac aims to achieve.

Each property is fully self-contained with its own kitchen, living area and garden or balcony.

But there is also a large shared building for everyone to use with communal living, cooking and dining spaces and equipment.

“We think there will be just the right balance between privacy and community,” said Fran Lee, 64, a retired teacher who will be giving up life on a houseboat to move into the Lilac community.

“The shared space will be a large multi-function room so we can have events there, we can cook and eat together. And there’s a lot of shared green space as well.”

Joe Atkinson, a 39-year-old charity worker, said he was initially attracted to the scheme as a “positive response” to climate change, but was quickly “blown away by how well organised the project was and how hard everyone was working to turn it into reality.”

All involved feel it will prove an ideal place for children.

Alan Thornton, who is moving in with partner Kirsty Hughes and their two youngsters, said: “I love the idea of having neighbours who are interested in spending time together and sharing resources. We’re convinced it will be a nice place to raise children.”