Who lives on an estate like this?
Social housing tenants will, if the National Trust gets its way. But plans to build on land attached to the
Erddig estate have had the venerable organisation’s members up in arms. Tom Lloyd reports
This bank holiday weekend you might well find yourself one of thousands of visitors to a National Trust attraction. But how would you feel if, while rambling through the grounds of a country estate, you stumbled across a social housing development?
This very question dominated the National Trust’s annual general meeting last November. A small group of members called for a housing development on trust land in north Wales to be halted and for the people behind the proposal to be sacked. They were concerned about plans to build 223 homes, a quarter of which would be affordable housing, on land that forms part of the trust’s Erddig estate, near Wrexham. The issue split the trust: members voted by 14,380 to 14,139 against the development, and the motion was only overturned when the charity’s chair stepped in with a block of 8,052 votes backing the trust’s plans.
A second motion calling for ‘those people responsible for the development proposals at Erddig to be removed’ was also defeated. But it had received widespread support, with 10,156 votes in favour.
So why is an organisation charged with conserving the nation’s countryside and heritage prepared to risk incurring the wrath of its members by building homes?
Peter Nixon, director of conservation at the trust, is quick to explain that it is not a developer: ‘Social housing is not our fundamental purpose, any more than food production from our agricultural land, or any other product is not our primary purpose,’ he says. ‘Our primary purpose is preserving wonderful places.
‘But we recognise that there are a whole series of social, environmental and economic processes that relate to that, and the management of land and property has to be dynamic. We don’t seek to preserve it in aspic.’
These ‘social and environmental’ considerations can include the need for housing in an area, and also the need for the trust to use development profits to fulfil its conservation aims. Any development must also be in keeping with the wishes of the donor of the land, and be led by the statutory planning process.
The trust and its sister body in Scotland also have a unique ability to declare land ‘inalienable’, granted under the 1907 act of Parliament that created the trust. This stops the government from enforcing compulsory purchase for development, and means only a joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons can demand the trust hands over land.
Mr Nixon says this right creates an assumption among members that trust land will not be built on, so when it does wish to go ahead with any development on any of its 250,000 hectares, it has to be sure it is done in a way that is compatible with the trust’s conservation goals. That approach has so far led to two notable projects – a development of homes for people aged over 55 at Cliveden near Maidenhead, and its Stamford Brook project on part of the Dunham Massey estate near Manchester.
At Cliveden, which has around 100 homes, the trust wanted to include affordable housing, but backed down in the face of local opposition. ‘It is a prosperous part of England, and there was anxiety from the local community that an element of affordable housing would be inappropriate there,’ says Mr Nixon, diplomatically.
Roughly 10 per cent of the Stamford Brook development’s 700 homes will be affordable, although it is not yet complete. Here the trust is working with developers Taylor Wimpey and Redrow to ensure the project is sustainable – homes have been designed to high environmental standards, with features to save water and improve thermal efficiency.
But the trust’s track record hasn’t convinced the locals near the proposed Erddig estate development. In a local ballot, residents of the village of Rhostyllen, which borders the land the trust wants to develop, voted against the plans by a margin of almost two to one. It wants to develop 19 acres on the fringes of the land and place the proceeds in a fund to sustain the rest of the 1,000-acre estate. Housing association Tai Clwyd is the preferred social landlord.
The trust says that when it was handed the estate in 1973, there was always an understanding that some of the land would be sold off to fund the maintenance of the rest of the estate.
Carrie Harper, a local Plaid Cymru councillor, says people don’t want to lose open space, and are also concerned the majority of the homes will be unaffordable for locals. ‘Generally people have got objections to that piece of land being developed at all, but if would definitely help if it was all affordable housing, which the trust would have been able to do 100 per cent and still make a profit,’ she claims.
Mr Nixon shrugs off the concerns. ‘To ever think, with regard to housing development, that you are going to get a common united view is simply an illusion, because people have different views,’ he says.
He insists the development is appropriate and meets the trust’s strict criteria. The proportion of affordable housing is in line with the guidelines set by the local authority.
Plans for the Erddig development have now been approved, subject to section 106 agreements, but for the moment work has been stalled by falling house prices and the credit crunch. Mr Nixon is adamant it will go ahead when the market picks up. Opponents of the development within the trust also seem resigned to the project, despite the near success of the 2008 AGM vote.
Marc Jones, another local Plaid Cymru councillor, says the constitutional and planning arguments against the development seem to have been exhausted, and there is little appetite for direct action. ‘It is too big a site, for one thing,’ he says.
He does feel that the campaign against the development has had some success, however. ‘The trust itself has a big problem in terms of credibility now,’ he says. ‘We hope the battle in Erddig has made it think twice about doing things in the future.’
But Mr Nixon suggests more schemes could be in the pipeline. ‘In the south of England there is another site that we’re in discussions with the local authority about,’ he says. ‘And there is always the possibility that other land will be left to us. It is a fluid situation.’ Trust members could be up in arms once again.
The trust as a landlord
In addition to being an occasional developer, the National Trust is also a landlord. The charity owns more than 5,000 houses and cottages, of which 1,000 are let to staff and around 300 are used as holiday lets. The remainder are rented to private individuals, generally at market rate, but in some cases this can be reduced. It can cut its rates, for example, when it is in the trust’s interest to bring someone into an area because of their skills who would not otherwise be able to afford housing.
If the trust deems itself to be a ‘significant housing provider’ in an area it will also consider reduced rents. In practice, there are currently very few instances where this set of circumstances arises, but historically the trust has offered low rents, and in some situations continues to do so in support of retired tenants.