Chipping Barnet, a leafy suburb of north London, is an unlikely location for a feminist utopia. Yet it is here, at the top of the high street, past the Susi Earnshaw theatre school and the Joie de Vie patisserie, that you will find Britain’s first cohousing community exclusively for women over 50. The purpose-built development is entirely managed by the women who set it up as an alternative to living alone.
New Ground’s entrance, all glass and bold typography, could easily be mistaken for a co-working space, as could the common room I am ushered into. Everything is bright, airy and spotlessly clean. The walls are lined with sleek white bookcases and a cinema-grade TV screen. The only clue as to the residents’ demographic is an unfinished 1,000-piece jigsaw on a table overlooking the large garden.
I am greeted warmly by the smell of good coffee and a circle of elegantly dressed women. “We range in age from 58 to 94,” says Jude Tisdall, 71, an arts consultant. Like most of the residents, she has lived here since the site’s completion in 2016. “Many of us still work, others volunteer and are active in the community. Someone might come in here and think OK, we are all of an age, but you can’t define us as old.” And it is true that no one here bears any resemblance to the stereotypes of senior citizens, least of all Tisdall, who mentions that she was photographed for a Vogue “rule breakers” issue as “the cohousing pioneer”.
At New Ground there are 25 flats with 26 residents (there is one married couple), eight of which are social rental units. Homes overlook a garden blooming with wildflowers, berries and an orchard. The common meeting room is used for weekly dinners, film nights (where Bill Nighy movies are popular) and yoga classes (“not chair yoga either, proper yoga”). There is also a guest suite for overnight visitors.
The mention of visitors prompts me to ask the burning question. Are men allowed in? “Of course! Everyone asks that,” says Tisdall. “We have brothers, fathers, sons, grandsons, lovers and everything in between. The only thing is they can’t come and live here.”
So, if one of them married a male partner, they would have to move out? “Not necessarily,” laughs Tisdall, who is divorced. “It would be a great excuse to say: ‘I’m sorry, darling. I can’t live with you but we can have great weekends together!”
For the uninitiated, cohousing is nothing like living in a commune. Instead, people occupy individual homes that they can own or rent with additional shared space for socialising, taking classes and gardening. That this is an idea whose time has come, particularly for older people, is indisputable. In 2021, 3.64 million people aged over 65 were living alone in the UK, 70% of whom were women. In 10 years’ time, over-65s will have risen from 19% to an estimated 22% of the population, according to the latest report by the Centre for Ageing Better. More sobering still, the number of years we can expect to spend without a disabling illness continues to decline – it is now 62.4 years for men and 60.9 years for women. Despite these statistics, cohousing in Britain is still in its infancy. Nearly 20 years after the UK’s first new-build scheme, Springhill, an intergenerational development, opened in Stroud, there are still only 302 homes in 12 new-build communities up and running.
We go on a tour of the site with another resident, Hilary Vernon-Smith, 72. With her lemon-yellow trainers and geometric haircut, she looks every inch the working artist and, in fact, her flat doubles as a studio. Before retirement, she was the head scenic artist at the National Theatre for 28 years. Gesturing towards the central oval lawn, she explains how the women worked closely with the site’s architects. “Research indicates that the dementia-affected brain responds more positively to curves and gets confused by dead-ends, so that was taken into consideration.”
The laid-back vibe means you could be forgiven for underestimating the power of this group. But turning the vision of New Ground into a reality took 18 years of intensive development, education, networking and many, many meetings. Maria Brenton is UK Cohousing Network’s senior ambassador and was instrumental in facilitating New Ground in 1998. “The women who started this were adamant that they didn’t want to sit in a day-room singing Daisy Daisy and Pack Up Your Troubles for the rest of their lives,” she says. “We were fiercely opposed to the ageism and paternalism, the infantilisation of older people by social care services.”
At New Ground, the women manage everything themselves and tasks are divided up among teams of volunteers responsible for maintenance, gardening, communications, cleaning and legal issues. For those who can’t see the need for the women-only model, Brenton cites the fitting tale of a Canadian project that decided to admit men “so there would be someone to change the lightbulbs”. “Within six months, every member of their management board was a man. This lot can change their own lightbulbs.”
At the outset, Brenton was an academic preparing to teach a masters course on ageing. On a research trip to the Netherlands, she discovered cohousing and wondered if it could take off in the UK. “Since the 1980s, the Dutch government has encouraged ‘living groups’ as an alternative to expensive nursing homes and care institutions. The thinking was, not only would it be cheaper, it would allow older people to mutually support each other and stay healthier, happier and more active.”
Back in London, Brenton contacted leading women’s networks and organised a workshop attended by members of Growing Old Disgracefully, Older Feminist Network and Older Lesbians Network among others. “Afterwards, a group of six women who all lived alone went off to the pub, as excited as starlings by the ideas we’d discussed. And that’s how OWCH, Older Women’s Cohousing group, was formed.”
Brenton received funding from the Tudor Trust to keep the group running and estimates that several hundred women joined over the years but not all of them survived to see the vision come to fruition. Why did it take so long?
“One of the problems was we didn’t know what we were doing,” she says. “Nobody had any experience, least of all me, in housing, construction or planning. We were innocents abroad.” An added complication was the group’s desire to include social housing. In order to do that, they needed a housing association on board. After a long search, Hanover housing association finally agreed to search for land to build on. But even after they secured the site, appropriately located at a former girls’ school and bordered by a convent, they had to fight a five-year planning battle with Barnet council.
The oldest resident, Hedi Argent, 94, describes what she felt was an unhelpful attitude. “I distinctly remember one of them saying: ‘There are enough old people living in Barnet.’” She claims they didn’t want more on the grounds that there would be additional strain on social services. But, if anything, the development is saving the local authority money. One example: women have set up a “health buddy” system where each person has a circle of two or three buddies who will check in on her regularly, offering extra help such as shopping or cooking if she has had a knee replacement or other mobility-limiting procedure.
“We look out for each other; we don’t look after each other,” says Argent. “We’re not changing dressings or other personal care. People who need carers still have them coming in.” Argent joined the group 11 years ago after her partner died and she found herself living alone. “One of the great benefits for me is I no longer have the ‘worrying ladder’ – my two daughters were worrying about me being on my own and so then I started worrying about them worrying. All that’s gone now.”
In any case, Argent is living what sounds like a busy life. A former book editor, she still takes on freelance assignments and has recently finished a children’s memoir, The Day the Music Changed, about her experiences of fleeing Nazi Europe when she was nine. She also regularly gives talks in schools and will soon be joined by Charlotte Balazs, 70, another resident with a family connection to the Holocaust.
“It’s great for networking here,” says Balazs, who had previously lived alone in a flat with no outside space. “I realised what a blessing it was to live here during the pandemic. Every day, at 2pm, we did keep fit in the car park and then sat in the garden. We had deliveries of food and some of us were able to get prescriptions etc. It sounds melodramatic, but I think I would have had some kind of meltdown without this community.”
Another illustration of the development’s benefits was when Tisdall fell and broke her shoulder. “My daughter and granddaughter came to visit, but they didn’t have to keep coming round to make sure I was fed and watered. I had people to do my shopping and pop round for a glass of wine.”
It all seems idyllic, but are there really no downsides? It occurs to me that a naturally secretive person like me would find it challenging. “Well, there is very good soundproofing,” says Argent, laughing. “The only thing my neighbour hears is my bath running. In fact, she asked me the other day if I was OK because she hadn’t heard it.”
Then there is the inevitable frustration of doing things by consensus. Ann Beatty, 58, had her doubts before moving in. “I had to ask myself: ‘Am I ready for this?’ But I’d returned from living abroad and was homeless with no plan. In the beginning, making communal decisions actually held us back. It stopped people from taking simple actions like just going and buying a clock for the common room when we needed one.” But, she says, things have evolved since then. “We learned that not everything needs a communal decision. We had training in consensus and decision-making, which helped.”
Cohousing has benefits that go far beyond serving its occupants. Locals join New Ground as non-resident members and attend parties and gardening days. Also, many of the women downsized to buy the flats, thus freeing up larger family homes that are in short supply.
“The magic of cohousing is great people combined with collaborative design,” says Frances Wright, community manager at Town, a profit-with-purpose developer. She and her partner recently downsized to Marmalade Lane, a Town scheme in Cambridge. Residents benefit from a crafts workshop, a gym and a farm shop. There is also a car club, which has allowed Wright to surrender her wheels for the first time.
“For me, living in cohousing makes sense but it certainly isn’t for everyone,” she says. “Making decisions together can be quite hard. However, we gave up a house to live in a two-bedroom flat and it really doesn’t feel like we’ve sacrificed anything.”
Mellis Haward, director of Archio Architects, has led many cohousing projects, including Angel Yard (all these sites have storybook names), a developing scheme in Norwich. “For so long we have all been slaves to the housing market and it’s really hard to create intentionally cohesive communities within that. People who are attracted to cohousing usually want purposeful closeness to their neighbours as a big part of their lives. It’s not just about alleviating loneliness – it allows people to become part of an ecosystem of families and individuals.”
Haward believes there needs to be a shift in approach to enable more cohousing to happen quickly because there is interest out there but demand isn’t being met. She suggests that a potential ray of hope may come from an unlikely quarter – mega-developers. “A trend is emerging for developers to build cohousing as an add-on to an existing project.” Have they all suddenly woken up to the benefits of the sharing economy? Maybe not. “I strongly suspect it’s because they know they can quickly shift those homes in advance. There are a large number of people in the cohousing network looking for homes right now. It’s an easy sell. Or maybe they do care about shared values? Maybe I’m just a massive cynic.”