How countryside communities are championing new affordable homes

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By Andrew McCloy

We find out how countryside communities are coming together behind new affordable homes that meet real local need.

When Vicky Hughes moved into her new home in Grasmere five years ago, she felt as if her family had won the Lottery. The property wasn’t a luxurious villa or engineering feat straight out of Grand Designs, but instead part of an unshowy yet attractive cul-de-sac of 15 homes, providing affordable and much-needed accommodation for local people.
‘The house is of a really good standard, and a beautiful place to live,’ Vicky says. ‘It’s been the making of me and my family.’

The Broadgate Orchard development where she lives was a good example of delivering the right type of rural housing, in the right place. Building any new property in an area of high landscape value is a challenge, but the bar can’t be raised much higher than a Conservation Area in the heart of the Lake District National Park, which last year was also designated a World Heritage Site. So when the development was planned – the first in the area for 30 years – it had to meet exacting design and sustainability standards.

The architects looked to the existing local vernacular, with details including white roughcast render, natural Lakeland stone and locally sourced slate roof tiles. But the Lake District National Park Authority overseeing the development was also keen on innovation and energy efficiency, so the design used some non-traditional materials, too, such as composite slate wall panels and banks of photovoltaic tiles designed to blend into the roofs.

The mix of terraces and semi-detached properties was deliberately clustered to fit in with the village’s layout. They include a maisonette with a fully wheelchair-accessible ground-floor flat, which was designed to meet the needs of a local resident who had suffered a spinal injury.

The development not only looks good and performs well, but also offers permanent homes to local, mostly young, people who have been priced out of this popular holiday destination. It has been claimed that over three-quarters of the properties in some Lake District villages are now either second homes or holiday cottages. Unsurprisingly, then, demand for the new properties was high, with four times as many high-priority applicants as there were available properties.

Vicky was one of the first residents to move into Broadgate Orchard when it opened in 2013. A few years earlier, she had been diagnosed with a serious illness and had moved to the area so that she and her children could be closer to her mum, but the family found renting in the Lake District was incredibly expensive: ‘The chance to have our own house was amazing – and it still is,’ she says. ‘It’s like having the world’s biggest and best outdoor playground on your doorstep.’

 

Making places

Satisfying the aspirations of rural communities when it comes to delivering new housing is not always easy. In too many instances, there’s a worrying gulf between the developer’s blueprint and a community’s vision for where they live, when planners and decision makers simply don’t listen or understand the local issues. That’s why CPRE Sussex developed its ‘Making Places’ award to encourage the coming together of communities and planners, as well as recognise design excellence in sustainable construction projects.

One of last year’s winners was a development at Ostlers Field in Brede, near Rye, which included 10 dwellings for affordable rent and three homes for shared ownership. The successful scheme was led by the local parish council and Hastoe Housing Group, the leading specialist rural housing association, which has worked closely with CPRE across the south of England.

The development was a long time in the making; Brede Parish Council began looking for a site nearly a decade ago. As ownership of the land it identified could not be established, Rother District Council had to use its compulsory purchase powers to acquire it, before selling the site on to Hastoe.

 

Designed for life

Close working between Hastoe and the parish council has resulted in a development that blends into the existing village extremely well – so much so, that it not only received the CPRE Sussex Making Places design award, but also won the Large Scale Residential Award at the 2017 Sussex Heritage Trust awards. Within a year of completion, Ostlers Field was fully occupied, and 80% of lets were allocated to households with a strong connection to the village, either through family living locally, existing residency or employment.

Kia Trainor, director of CPRE Sussex, explains why the scheme stood out: ‘Not only does it provide well-designed affordable homes for local people, but the homes are also built to high levels of energy and water efficiency, which means that they are cheaper to run than many conventional homes,’ she says. ‘Residents living in Ostlers Field enjoy the look and feel of the development – close to local amenities and with attractive gardens and green space.’

Ostlers Field was a so-called rural exception site – typically a small plot of land on the edge of a village that is gifted or sold at a low price to a housing association, expressly for affordable housing. Around a fifth of all rural affordable homes last year were built on rural exception sites. However, this vital component of rural housing supply could be in jeopardy from planned changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (opposed by CPRE) that may inflate land prices, incentivising developers to pursue new open-market housing and discouraging landowners from offering plots cheaply for rural exception sites.

 

Meeting local need

In other instances, a rural community’s desire to safeguard its immediate landscape from development means an alternative approach to meeting local housing needs must be found. Stocksfield in Northumberland is a prosperous commuter village 14 miles west of Newcastle, but no new affordable housing had been built in the area for 25 years. With a high percentage of owner-occupiers and an ageing demographic, the shortage of affordable rented homes was becoming critical. The Parish Plan had provided clear evidence of need, and a questionnaire sent to all 1,200 households confirmed huge public support for new affordable housing within the village, including from those who had family wanting to stay locally or return to the area. A community land trust (CLT) was established to take the scheme forward, chaired by local resident Pete Duncan: ‘We teamed up with Isos Housing, one of the largest housing associations in northeast England,’ he explains.

‘It was the first time Isos had backed a community-led project.’ Group, the leading specialist rural housing association, which has worked closely with CPRE across the south of England. The development was a long time in the making; Brede Parish Council began looking for a site nearly a decade ago. As ownership of the land it identified could not be established, Rother District Council had to use its compulsory purchase powers to acquire it, before selling the site on to Hastoe.

 

Building on brownfield

While the Parish Plan showed support for new homes, it also indicated that local people highly valued their countryside and were concerned about the possible environmental impact of any development. As Stocksfield is within the Green Belt, the CLT narrowed its search to brownfield sites within the village. ‘Finally, we found an overgrown plot with a building that was once a snooker hall,’ explains Pete. ‘Tracking down the owner, negotiating the purchase and dealing with other interest groups was complicated and time consuming. However, eventually we got approval for a scheme of four flats and three bungalows, which were all let straight away to local people.’

In addition, sale proceeds from part of the site were reinvested into sports facilities elsewhere in Stocksfield, including an extension to the cricket club pavilion. ‘The key to our success was having the right people around the table,’ says Pete.

‘We had an excellent relationship with the parish council throughout the project and they have been fully supportive. But we also had a genuine partnership with the housing association, too. Isos treated the community groups as equals; in fact, it even allowed us to take the lead, which was vital to the project succeeding.’

The Stocksfield scheme won a National Housing Award, while the CLT set up to develop affordable housing is now moving on to its next project: a community transport scheme for the village.

 

Wider community benefits

Just as the CLT at Stocksfield has empowered local people to go on and develop other community projects, affordable housing schemes can have benefits that go beyond simply providing new places to live. Toller Porcorum in west Dorset is a small village of around 300 people. It has already lost its school, pub and railway branch line, and until recently the village post office was limping on in a run-down house with insecure tenancy.

In 2015, six new housing units were built on land gifted by the late philanthropist and local resident Vanora Hereward, on the condition that, new premises for a post office were part of the development. The scheme was taken on by Toller Porcorum CLT, working with Wessex Community Land Trust Project and the Aster housing group, and involved building five two- and three-bedroom houses, plus one flat above the new post office, all for affordable rent. The homes are managed under a 125-year lease on the CLT’s behalf by Aster, and a further spin-off benefit to the community is that the annual ground rent Aster pays to the CLT is used to help fund a variety of village projects and activities, from the toddler group to running the playing field.

The development has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the Toller Porcorum community: ‘The village was in danger of becoming one big old-age pensioners’ home,’ says Barry Rutherford, the CLT’s treasurer when the new housing was opened. ‘It is almost impossible for young people on average earnings to get into the property market in this area.’

Three years on, and Toller’s post office continues to provide a vital local service. ‘We’re open every weekday morning and it’s become a place where local people meet up,’ says postmistress Evelyn Whitcombe. ‘We offer all the usual counter services and, with the recent axing of the mobile library, we’ve even started our own book-ordering and collection point. The new housing safeguarded all of this, and has provided a long-term boost for the whole village.’

Affordable housing may not always look the same, or be delivered in the same way in every rural community – but for our hard-pressed villages, the effects can be equally profound.

Family walking through door of house