Cockaigne, for those who don't know, is a mythical land of milk and honey and it was the name chosen back in the early sixties by a newly formed group, full of utopian aspirations, who went on to build the well-known Ryde housing in Hatfieldwhich has been my home for the last 26 years. With so much current discussion of the merits of co-housing, so much study of successful schemes abroad, and so much frustration suffered by those who try to get schemes off the ground, it is worth looking again at the Cockaigne scheme, possibly the first UK example, to see what it is that has led to its on-going success.
The scheme was conceived in January '62 when Michael Baily, the Times transport correspondent, placed a small ad, still in those days on the front page, inviting those interested in'a cooperative venture to build a group of imaginative homes for own occupation' to contact him, and from this rather speculative seed a working group was formed, led by Michael, whose energy and commitment were the first vital ingredients in makingCockaigne the success that it was and which, after nearly 50 years, it continues to be.
What exactly it was that inspired Michael is now hard to say. Clearly there was a deep general frustration with the quality of speculative new-build housing available in the UK at the time but why he should have come up with the notion that a co-operative approach might be the key to improvement is less clear as there was no UK precedent for a co-operative scheme for owner occupation. Married to a Dane and travelling extensively in his work he may have been aware of ground breaking Scandinavian schemes such as Jorn Utzon's Kingo houses in Elsinore but the most important Danish co-housing schemes postdate Cockaigne. USA housing co-operatives may have been another source of inspiration but whatever it was that triggered his initiative Baily pursued it with quite remarkable industry and skill.
The Cockaigne Housing Group was formed first as a Housing Society (a Friendly Society registered under the Industrial and Provident Society Act), establishing the rules under which we still operate, and was later incorporated as a limited company but it still had no land and, this being before the creation of the Housing Corporation, no obvious source of funds.
Those involved in current initiatives will be only too well aware what a struggle life can be getting co-housing schemes off the ground and one of the decisive breaks for Cockaigne, after fruitless contacts with every London Borough in the search for a site, was to find some officers in the Hatfield Development Corporation and Hatfield RDC who were prepared to back their idea. In a 1966 radio broadcast Michael Baily paid handsome tribute to four officers. Not only did they make a site available without a down payment but they were prepared to fund the scheme despite its very unconventional nature, by means of a loan for construction. They would also provide up to 100% mortgages though in practice each original owner put down a 10% deposit. Could such things happen today...?
The site they found was situated in the Ryde estate, one of the few areas of the new town in Hatfield set aside for private development. A long, thin 2.75 acre strip close to the east coast mainline, the land had an allocation for 12 houses which established its value, but the officers accepted that higher numbers might be allowable without an increase in price.
Cockaigne's other decisive piece of good fortune was to identify architects capable of delivering their vision. Baily had never thought that any established practice would be able to come up with the new and totally imaginative solution he hoped for and fruitless enquiries via the RIBA had confirmed his view. Then at the 1962 Ideal Home Exhibition he came upon a DoE concept scheme for an Adaptable House designed by two young research architects, David Parkes and Peter Randall, and meetings with them and a friend of theirs, Peter Phippen, who was working at the LCC led to the formation of a brand new practice, now PRP Architects, to take the project forward. With hindsight it may be that only a new practice could have brought the essential energy and commitment to the project with David becoming a Cockaigne member and a resident for the first five years. It is also doubtful that the mandatory fee levels of that time would have begun to cover the costs of such an involved scheme for any more established practice.
The idea, as Baily put it was 'to work out afresh the needs of the family of today' and aerial shots show how utterly different the houses are from the standard early '60s products nearby. There was a serious commitment to raise the standard above that of the expensive, poor quality speculative housing then available. Interestingly a sociologist from the DoE research group, Barbara Adams, was .to help formulate the dynamics of the group and the brief. The target which evolved from this, to get best value from the site and to meet the original aspirations for the size of the group, was for a relatively high density providing 20-30 units, a number big enough to support a mix of house types with some common amenities, but small enough that everyone would get to know each other and run the scheme in a neighbourly spirit.
Very importantly in balancing the communal aspects of the scheme the privacy of each home was very high on the list of objectives and Chermayeff and Alexander's 'Community and Privacy' published in 1964 gave a wider audience for this important line of architectural thinking. Alongside this were other requirements for economy of construction and adaptability and out of all this arose the concept of narrow frontage, deep plan, single storey terraced houses with rooflights and internal patios to let the sunshine in. Each house would have its own frontage to the road with a garage but would connect at the rear to a hidden shared garden running the length of the site with a tennis court at one end and, at the other, the community house with its guest suite, meeting rooms and shared kitchen. Floor areas were slightly in excess of the emerging Parker Morris standards but the efficiency achieved by doubling almost all of the circulation as habitable space meant that luxuries such as garages, central heating, second bathrooms and small but entirely private walled gardens could be provided.
Financially the scheme still had to wipe its feet and overall costs, including site purchase and construction (but no developers profit of course) had to be pegged to the assessed mortgage capabilities of the prospective owners. The single storey construction, use of concrete block and the virtual elimination of wet trades all stem at least in part from the need to keep control of cost.
It is not my purpose here to discuss the designs in detail because they have been much published elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the designs as they finally emerged, though reticent externally, work extraordinarily well inside and achieve an intense relation of indoor to outdoor space which is entirely new for UK housing of this time. They are not faultless - the lack of storage, the low ceilings, the lack of insulation (typical of the time) and the still not always watertight roofs might be mentioned - but they show a wonderful consideration to detail and overall clarity of thought.
Management and Legal Structure
The Cockaigne Housing Group Limited holds a 999 year head lease on the entire site and is responsible for its management and maintenance. Each house owner has a single share in the company and a committee, usually of seven members, is elected each year. The original Friendly Society rules have been amended a little over the years but still provide the framework under which the committee operates. There is a considerable burden of work which falls on the Secretary and the rules provide for paid administrators to be taken on but so far it has never been necessary to go down this route. It would be idle to suggest that there have not been frictions from time to time but so far there is no blood on the vinyl tiled floor of the community house.
Much of what the committee does is defined by the terms of the headlease and sub leases and it has been an occasional source of frustration that although procedures for change of the Friendly Society rules are well defined, the lease terms can only be changed by unanimous consent. It is hard now to be sure whether the inclusion of what is in effect an individual veto on change in a scheme dedicated to community living was included intentionally as a safeguard or whether alternatively it was an unforeseen outcome in the drafting of documents for a totally new type of development. A current discussion where this veto becomes relevant concerns the fact that, very unusually among managed schemes, Cockaigne has no sinking fund arrangement and if we want to set one up it looks as if the lease will have to be changed.
Another flaw in the management structure which became apparent very early on was that eligibility for the management committee was restricted to shareholders and in the sixties when joint ownership of houses was less common than now, this effectively meant men. A solution here was to set up a parallel social committee, much less constrained in its operations, dedicated to fund raising and the organization of social events and largely run by female members.
Unsurprisingly, the original residents were predominantly young professionals. It is a touching feature of Cockaigne life that there is a list of all those who have lived in each house and this shows that 24 houses out of the 28 were taken by couples who already had, or were soon to have, young families. Many of this first generation were fired by the cooperative concept but some, particularly perhaps those who joined the group relatively late, were indifferent or even mildly hostile to the very active community life. Other residents in the area were suspicious of what they suspected of being subversive elements in this radical new scheme and anxious that the design brought down the quality of the area (the scheme was originally rejected by the planners partly on these grounds) but any antipathy did not last.
Another big factor at this stage was that architects and other designers took no fewer than fourteen houses out of the twenty eight partly because Robert Matthew Johnson Marshall had just moved to Welwyn Garden. There is some evidence that the presence of a large sub group from one profession, many of whom worked for the same firm, perhaps understandably caused occasional friction.
Part of the early thinking on the scheme was the inclusion of a number of smaller houses. The 8 one and two bed houses were rarities at the time and their introduction brought a probably welcome note of diversity while also making good use of some of the narrowest parts of the site. Interestingly it is these smaller units which generally remain unextended.
It would have been in about 1970 that Cockaigne reached its peak in terms of population (about 90 including children) and of its cooperative character. Parties were frequent and lively involving many friends from the surrounding area, the nursery school flourished, tennis and volleyball tournaments brightened the weekends and much of the maintenance was done by in-house working parties. Shared meals and joint excursions were regular events facilitated by a well-organized babysitting circle. The strength of the personal bonds developing from all of this are well attested by the large numbers of former residents who still attend social functions.
This affection for Cockaigne and the remarkable adaptability of the houses have also ensured a very low turnover in ownership. After nearly 50 years there are still 4 original owners in place with 6 others who have been members for more than 25 years but this very stability has also, perversely, brought about a great change. Where once there were about 40 small children there are now only three with instead 15 pensioner households and 9 single occupiers two of whom are disabled. Nor is it likely that this change in age profile will be reversed because the family houses, having mostly been extended and being collectors pieces, are now outside the price bracket of most young couples. Houses which in 1966 were priced at between £3500 and £7000 now sometimes fetch more than £500000.
The extensions would make a study in themselves. Change has always been governed by the terms of the leases and, since 1998, by a Grade 2 listing, but has nevertheless been widespread. The frontages, with the exception of the occasional flourish of a coloured front door, remain much as they always were, black boarded and flat roofed, but most of the houses have in fact been extended either at the front, or the rear, or both. Most common of all has been the addition of glazed roofs over the original internal patios to form conservatories or, in a few cases, fully integrated habitable rooms. The fact that the scheme was something of an architectural ghetto was of course a factor in this history of controlled change and even now there are four architects in residence, three of them being management committee members.
Michael Baily's original aspirations for the group were many and varied with talk of swimming pools, shared boats, and even a shared holiday home but even without these the community life in the early days was, as I have described, a defining feature of Cockaigne. The community ideal was not however pursued dogmatically and suggestions that the group would be able to blackball subsequent purchasers or take a levy on enhanced resale values were firmly put aside.
The master plan for the site cleverly reflects the balance of individual and communal needs with each house relating independently to the road but linking at the rear to the community facilities. Architecturally the focus is on the individual dwelling and the community does not have any independent formal expression.
These days the social life, though no longer the dominant feature it once was , still thrives with the community house in regular use for quizzes, management meetings, U3A events, parties, yoga classes, a gardening club, informal lunches and shared dinners . The background music for parties may now include Handel as well as Hendrix but about half of the current owners participate on a regular basis. Michael Baily relates that the community house was originally designed so that it could easily be sold off as a dwelling if things didn't work out but in fact it became necessary fairly early on to extend it. An early article by a resident, Ken Dally, and a more recent one by Crispin Kelly both suggest that the building is overlarge for 28 households but it is still regularly filled when groups of forty or so share an evening meal and service charge/ground rent payments of about £500 pa per house are not exorbitant. Two formerly important uses have disappeared though: the nursery school moved out in 1993 because increased demand and regulation were leading to a situation where it threatened to take over the community house completely, and through process of time the function of the house as an informal youth club where the teenage children could 'hang out' and play table tennis, has also gone.
The intended function of the small guest flat (it has a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen) appears not to have been fully resolved originally, suggestions that it might be used by a resident caretaker/child minder being apparently in conflict with more straightforward use for family guests. The flat continues to be very well used and provides a good source of community income from long term lets but there are still occasional conflicts when residents want to take it for their weekend visitors.
There has to be a concern of course that, although thriving now, thecommunitylife of Cockaigne will decline over the coming years but some of the newer residents are highly enthusiastic so hopefully the original spirit will live on.
Conclusions and Lessons
Looking back now on the elements which have contributed to the success of Cockaigne, there is first and foremost the vision and energy, inspirational but not bullying, of one man, Michael Baily.
A forward thinking sponsor is also vital and came, for Cockaigne, in what would now seem the most unlikely form of an enlightened local authority.
Good architects, probably with the patience of saints, are another essential and a recognition that an enhanced fee will almost certainly be needed to cover the level of detailed negotiation required.
The balance achieved both architecturally and managerially between community ideals and the needs for individual family privacy is about right and has probably contributed hugely to the on-going success of the scheme.
The decision to allow complete freedom in the onward sale of houses was also important. The character of any housing scheme will change and develop over time and trying to prevent or influence this would I think be a mistake.
Over the last 48 years the average age of residents has gone up by at least 30 years and this change now seems to be irreversible. The priorities of the current, more mature community, are clearly very different from those of their predecessors.
The involvement of a solicitor who, in general, really understood the aims of the group was a bonus but the drafting of the lease to give an individual veto on any change has been, in my view at least, a matter for regret. Perhaps it was simply an oversight.
The overall size of the group, with 28 households, seems to have worked well. This size of group is often quoted as being right for co-housing schemes but it is worth bearing in mind that in Cockaigne the actual numbers of people have varied from 50 to 90.
The self-administration and the community life of the scheme continue to work well but rely heavily on the commitment of a few members without whom things might now be very different.
Maybe in another fifty years the community house will have been sold and the management will be carried out by commercial agents but all the signs at the moment are that Cockaigne, because its original aspirations were very well balanced, is in excellent health.