The following article by Susannah Richter appears in the latest edition of Kent Voice. We would be interested in your feedback.
Unrealistic housing targets are putting more pressure on the housebuilding industry than ever before. In Kent, the total 20-year figure is 158,500 new homes, with recent objectively assessed housing need of 18,560 in Maidstone, 15,600 in Thanet, 16,000 in Canterbury and 29,500 in Medway. The industry is dominated by the big companies, so what are the barriers faced by small and medium sized builders and can they provide solutions to the housing crisis?
Pentland Homes was set up by landowning farmers in the 1970s and now builds around 100 homes a year, up from just 30 during the recession five years ago. Most of its development sites are brownfield (79%) – including empty schools, a disused factory, a former pub and MoD land.
But Managing Director Martin Hart says brownfield sites are complicated: “Firstly, they are bought at risk because we don’t know what problems we may find. We are currently building on the site of an old potato packing plant at New Romney which was entirely concreted over – we didn’t know what to expect when we removed the concrete. If something untoward was found, a small company could go bankrupt on just one unlucky brownfield buy.
“Secondly, if a site has been brownfield for a long time it often has greater ecological value than greenfield land which has been ploughed and treated. We have to get ecologists involved and it can be costly if we need to move or provide for species or could even prevent planning permission. Either way it will cause delay – again something many small building companies cannot afford.”
This is exactly what happened at Lodge Hill, a former army camp in Medway identified for 5,000 homes. Over the last 20 years it has become home to 1.3% of the national nightingale population as well as bats, great crested newts, toads, lizards, slow worms, grass snakes and adders. This will be the subject of an interesting planning inquiry.
Pentland Homes’ site of the old Romney Marsh Potato Company will have 48 homes, 30% of them affordable. Martin said: “We always try to match the policy position on providing affordable homes as we like to be fair and equitable. However, the pressure on smaller builders is greater because it is impossible to even get housing associations to take on just a few houses. If the development is 10 homes, no housing association will take on the three affordable homes required to meet the quota. The alternative is to pay the local authority to make the provision.”
At Bluebells in Ashford, a greenfield site in the local plan developed in conjunction with improvements to junction 9, a pedestrian bridge over the M20 and the John Lewis employment site, Pentland built 42 houses and 12 apartments as well as 67 affordable warden care apartments for the elderly at Chamberlain House. Pentland consulted with the local community, including an Inquiry by Design workshop which resulted in greatly improved designs.
One of Pentland’s more controversial sites is Thanington Park near Canterbury which Martin has been promoting for 10 years and finally has planning permission. CPRE Kent is against this because it is a greenfield site within a designated Area of High Landscape Value; it will result in the loss of productive farmland; concerns about the impact on local roads and planning permission was granted whilst the site was out for consultation in the local plan.
Martin justifies this because of the benefits the development is promising: a primary school, health facility, walking and cycling routes into Canterbury, allotments, a brand new state-of-the-art hospice and an improved road junction which he claims will open up the 50-acre brownfield site at Wincheap. The site is close to ancient woodland and he spent a year working with ecologists and Natural England looking at ways to improve ecology and biodiversity
The arguments can be convincing. We may not agree with the decisions made by planning authorities but accept that, faced with impossibly high housing targets, they are under pressure to agree sites which will result in large numbers of new homes.
Pentland aims to build 750 homes here over the next six-seven years. The planning process alone is reckoned to have cost £1m – another problem for smaller builders, the planning process is slow and expensive. “You have to be patient and work with planning authorities,” said Martin.
Developments too are slow and expensive. Pentland was behind the transformation of Hawkinge from an old airfield to a community of two thousand homes. It has taken 20 years – starting with bringing in the army to sweep for explosives and including spending £7m on a new bypass.
That’s why developments like Connaught Barracks in Dover are so important. Here, the Government is undertaking to clean up the site, provide infrastructure and then sell off manageable parcels of land to small builders to really give them a chance to deliver some of the houses we so badly need.
David Cox, owner of Cox Restoration, has built 20 houses in Kent villages over the last 20 years and is currently completing six houses at Old Clockhouse Green in Challock. He was born and grew up in Challock and cares passionately about the village.
The site was agricultural land owned by his family, an orchard since 1951 but no longer productive. It took David 26 years to get through the planning process! This was because it was outside the existing built area of Challock in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; but with villagers on his side – they wanted additional homes to support the school, post office and shops – he finally won planning permission. The community had by then undertaken an innovative project to define the village confines.
David said: “Planning has had a difficult job to do and by and large over the last 50 years has protected the countryside very well. I believe moderate building in the right place in village locations in the countryside should be allowed but should be a little here, a little there, not huge allocations.”
“the market could suddenly stop dead and the homes may not sell”
However, he said it is a big risk for small builders – they have to acquire the land, go through the lengthy and costly planning process and borrow to fund the build. “Then, with our pattern of recession followed by recovery, the market could suddenly stop dead and the homes may not sell,” said David.
David prides himself on offering something different – he builds to a very high specification, using Kent timber, specialist brickwork, local handmade tiles. They are modern houses but with traditional English touches and fit in very well to the villages he loves.
Despite the frustrations of the planning system, the cost and delay of working with evolving and ever changing local plans, some small builders seem to really care about the homes they create and the communities they impact on. Let’s hope government policy helps give them the opportunity to play a growing role in solving our housing crisis.
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April 12th 2016.