Between a Rock and a hard place
A Cornish town is overcoming inflated house prices by letting locals build their own affordable homes. Jules Birch asks whether the new community right to build will make this type of resident-led development easier.
The Cornish seaside town of Rock is an unlikely place to start an affordable housing revolution.
Dubbed Kensington-on-Sea thanks to its popularity with wealthy holidaymakers from London, house prices have soared beyond the reach of local people. Half the homes in the surrounding St Minver parishes are holiday lets or second homes.
But revolutions have to start somewhere. Local builder Bill Dingle recognised that rising house prices were forcing local young people to move away and came up with an idea to do something about it. In 2005 he persuaded farmer David Wills to sell land on the edge of town at a price that would enable locals to build their own homes at less than a third of the market price.
The St Minver Community Land Trust persuaded North Cornwall Council (since abolished to make way for the unitary Cornwall Council) first to grant planning permission for the scheme, even though it was outside the development boundary for the town; and then to grant it £5,000 to cover set-up costs and a £544,000 interest-free loan to get things moving. The money paid for infrastructure and a road bond, a deposit held by the highways authority to ensure roads are built to the correct standard.
Mr Dingle sadly died before seeing his vision become a reality. But work is now well underway on the second phase of the development - called Dingle’s Way. With support from housing associations like Cornwall Rural and Hastoe, the idea is now spreading through the south west and beyond. ‘Just think what a difference it would make if every village could do something similar,’ says St Minver CLT secretary Helen Rawe.
An old idea revitalised
If it all sounds very ‘big society’, that’s because in a way it is - even though community land trusts were originally a 19th century idea and not a product of the much-maligned coalition government initiative it has inspired.
St Minver was not the first CLT, but it has become part of a growing movement in the south west. It’s also the place where, in December 2009, then shadow housing minister Grant Shapps first articulated his vision for what he called a ‘rural revolution’.
Even then it was clear the now housing minister wanted to go further. His ‘eureka moment’ came on a visit to Essendon in his Welwyn Hatfield constituency, when he saw some derelict bungalows that villagers wanted to redevelop into affordable homes. ‘For the first time, the community will be able to grant themselves planning permission to build,’ he pledged.
The result of that pledge is the community right to build, part of a new system of neighbourhood planning under the Localism Bill, which is scheduled to receive royal assent in November. Communities will be able to set their own neighbourhood areas and hold local referenda on plans they agree to put forward. Initially, the government said the system would only apply to rural areas and would need a 75 per cent vote in favour; now it will apply to all areas and only require a 50 per cent share of the vote.
No more nimbyism?
‘It’s one of the most exciting changes seen in planning for an awfully long time,’ says Dr Karl Dayson, the University of Salford academic who chaired the Conservative Party’s CLT taskforce. ‘There is a lot said about nimbyism but maybe we are not as nimby as people make out. It’s a broader issue than just community land trusts - it’s about transferring powers to local communities.’
Back in Cornwall the idea of community right to build provokes blank looks and shrugs from people involved in the St Minver Community Land Trust. That’s because, while they have encountered plenty of red tape and frustration, hardly any of it has been to do with the planning system.
‘Community land trusts are already delivering through the normal system,’ explains Alan Fox, director of Cornwall CLT, the umbrella body for trusts in the county set up in 2007. ‘They don’t have to rely on the right to build as we’ve got plenty of sites coming forward with landowners willing to sell land at reasonable cost and we’re working in the normal way through exceptions sites.’
Further up the region, Steve Watson of the umbrella CLT for Somerset, Dorset and Devon says he is supporting one community that wants to be both a land trust and one of the neighbourhood planning vanguards that will pilot the government’s new system.
‘Our approach is to build by consensus,’ he says. ‘The culture within local authorities has changed quite rapidly. We’re talking to people that are very positive about community-led initiatives and they are getting support even though they might not have a couple of years ago.’
Mr Watson adds that although he thinks community right to build will be used, he has not encountered much resistance to community-led planning from local authorities.
Councils are willing to look at new ideas too, such as allowing departure applications - which go against the grain of usual planning policy - so that homes for open market sale can be built on exception sites to cross-subsidise the development of affordable homes. ‘Villagers see it as a no-brainer,’ says Mr Watson. ‘They are prepared to accept sales if they can have the affordable homes now rather than never. Councils are wary of departing from policies if that creates a precedent for private developers to build on farmland. But where it’s done by a CLT in partnership with a housing association, and it’s clear that all of the surplus is going to be reinvested, they find the whole case very appealing.’
Not all good news
If planning is not the big issue, CLT pioneers still face plenty of barriers. At St Minver, the trustees say that applying for charitable status was ‘a nightmare’ and that they have faced ‘unbelievable red tape’ in dealing with the highways department over a strip of land at the entrance to the scheme.
But the number one obstacle is finance - and there is a worry that the government may reserve seedcorn funding for the community right to build rather than land trusts that have already proved they can work with local planning authorities.
‘What’s holding us back is development finance,’ says Mr Fox. ‘Our capacity for borrowing is limited. If there was some kind of fund nationwide that we could borrow from it would help enormously and we could match-fund other loans.’
The pioneers in St Minver agree. ‘The biggest thing the government could do is set up a revolving fund and lend money to help people to help themselves,’ says Mike O’Boyle of the St Minver CLT. ‘They will be getting homes built, they will be freeing up rental property and they will get the money back in the end.’
Good neighbours: How the community right to build will work
As part of the Localism Bill’s wider reform of neighbourhood planning, the community right to build will enable local people to bring forward small schemes that have the backing of more than half the community, even where the local authority is opposed.
Only community groups will be eligible to bring forward right to build schemes. They must be small scale (between five and 10 homes) and should not exceed 10 per cent of existing development over a 10-year period.
The local planning authority will then appoint an independent examiner to assess whether it conforms with national policy and strategic policies in the local development plan and is compatible with European Union and human rights regulations.
If the examiner decides a referendum should be held, and more than 50 per cent vote in favour, the local planning authority must approve a community right to build order giving planning permission for the scheme.
Do it yourself: The St Minver scheme
‘It’s a different way of owning property,’ says Mike O’Boyle of St Minver Community Land Trust in Rock, Cornwall. ‘It’s a home to live in, not an investment to get on to the property ladder. We’re not going to make a lot of money on this house, but it’s ours.’
Mr O’Boyle was one of the self-builders on the first phase at St Minver and is now a trustee. Without the scheme inspired by local builder Bill
Dingle, his family might have been forced to move.
Local farmer David Wills was convinced by Mr Dingle’s argument about the need for affordable homes for people with a strong local connection. He agreed to sell land at £10,000 per plot, which amounts to £120,000 for the site of the first phase that was outside Rock’s development area but gained planning permission as an exceptions site. To put this in perspective, one plot of land recently sold on the open market for £950,000.
Then it was down to the self-builders’ hard work to setting up the trust and a year of working evenings and weekends. Contractors were hired to build the roads and the foundations of the properties, and on the second phase of the development, the timber frames and windows have been installed by help from outside - but everything else is being done by the self-builders themselves.
In the first phase of development, which cost a total of £984,000 to develop, they built 12, two-bedroom homes worth £287,500 and £335,000 on the open market. The affordable properties were just £90,000 and £105,000. This was before the credit crunch - the homes were completed at the end of 2008 - and lenders accepted the value of their labour as a deposit. Covenants on the homes mean that if residents ever move they can only sell to buyers approved by the trust and at the same percentage of market value.
For the second phase, which cost a total of £864,000 to develop, the trust is working in partnership with Cornwall Rural Housing Association. The self-builders are developing eight properties to be sold at just over a third of the open market value and the social landlord is completing four for social rent.
The result of all that hard work is impressive, but the St Minver pioneers know they can only do so much and only help so many people. The worst thing for CLT secretary Helen Rawe was having to turn people down. Of 38 households shortlisted, 20 have secured homes at the development.
‘The selection process was horrible - we were able to help some people but others were literally devastated,’ she says. ‘It was really hard on everybody. People you hoped would benefit lost out and it was just awful.’