It’s been more than a decade in the making, but eventually Derwenthorpe will be a great example of an energy-efficient community. Jess McCabe finds out why it’s taken so long to build
There are no streets yet in Derwenthorpe. Right now it’s an expanse of grassy fields - with a muddy building site in one corner. It’s hard to grasp what the area will look by 2016, when the builders pack up and all the people have moved into York’s new, £100 million, energy-efficient, model community.
It will eventually boast 540 homes, connected by green spaces and trees. But when Inside Housing visited on a soggy winter’s day, only one house was near completion, and we needed to strap on boots and squelch through the deep, sticky, orange mud to get to the front door.
On the eastern outskirts of York, Derwenthorpe still looks like a battleground, but for the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, it’s a field of victory.
It represents the culmination of a hard slog, spanning 13 years, and a £5 million legal struggle that has seen the project challenged at every turn, right up to the European courts. Derwenthorpe is the prime example of just how challenging it can be to achieve what Inside Housing’s Get on Our Land campaign is calling for: freeing up land to build much-needed homes.
The original idea, first mooted in 1998, was for JRHT to buy the site from York Council and transform it into a model community.
Bill Woolley was then a fresh-faced assistant director of city strategy at the council. Now he’s director of city strategy and deputy council chief. ‘We could have just sold the land to any housing developer,’ he says.
‘We wanted to create a community there, in the same way that, back in 1902, Joseph Rowntree created New Earswick. We went to [the JRHT], and we quickly found that we had common aims to get more than just a housing development.’
The hope was to replicate the success of the Victorian philanthropist’s original ‘garden village’ and to help meet York’s rising demand for family homes, says Nigel Ingram, head of development at JRHT and our guide for the day. The homes would be built to exemplary energy efficiency standards, to show other developers how it could be done.
So why did it take so long?
The first glimmer of trouble came when JRHT held a competition in 1999 for an architect to design the masterplan for the community.
Four plans were shortlisted and the public were invited to open days, and given a chance to vote for their favourite. Then a selection panel, including a community panel, brought together with the help of the council outreach worker, and representatives from York Council and JRHT, got together to pick a design.
In 2009, a decade later, when writing about the lessons learned, JRHT labelled this initial vote a ‘basic error’.
‘The intention was just to gauge reactions in a systematic manner, but local residents construed this as a formal voting process and demanded to know the results,’ JRHT said in its Urban Extensions report. Of the four masterplans, 47 per cent of locals favoured one which segregated the new community from nearby homes with green space, and would build a new road through nearby fields.
The community panel agreed not to choose this one as it would not be possible to build the road - it would run across private land - and the design didn’t fit the brief. The concept was for a town extension, not an isolated community.
Instead, the panel opted for the masterplan designed by London-based PRP Architects. It divides the site into four neighbourhoods, each blending into the surrounding area. Traffic would come into the site via existing roads.
There were logical reasons for the selection. But the spectre of the alternative loomed over the project for years to come.
Fighting the fears
Quentin Andrews, an architect at PRP, was involved in designing the masterplan. Many locals were happy with the plans, he recalls from the thorough consultation that took place at the time, but there was always some opposition. First, because it was a greenfield site. (The council and JRHT note the land was set aside for housing in the late 1980s by Ryedale Council, before boundary changes brought the land into York’s possession.)
Second, ‘transport issues were a major concern for local residents’, says Mr Andrews.
JRHT and supporters saw the site as an idle patch of land, ideal for building much-needed homes. About 2,800 people are on York Council’s waiting list, and another 1,400 are on JRHT’s.
For opponents, the site was an emerald of green open space. It was no manicured park, but it was a good place to walk their dogs. ‘The greatest benefit for the greatest number would come from the land being retained as public open space,’ says a statement by Osbaldwick parish in May 2010. Opponents were also concerned it would open the door for more construction on the greenbelt.
Selecting and refining the masterplan took extensive consultation - it was 2003, when JRHT submitted its planning application for the project to York Council. In an indication of the level of opposition, the same year a petition calling for a public inquiry was signed by 800 people and raised in parliament.
Local planners eventually gave the project the thumbs up in 2006. But the communities secretary in charge of planning at the time, Ruth Kelly, swiftly called the project in for further assessment, after York planners said the project was of national importance. This triggered a public inquiry which put the development back a year.
‘The feeling of the Derwenthorpe team was one of frustration,’ recalls Mr Ingram.
Despite this setback, in 2007, JRHT won its case. Ms Kelly found in favour of the development. ‘The proposals would make a crucial contribution to provision of affordable housing in York,’ the inquiry concluded. Members of Mr Ingram’s team at JRHT thought they could breathe a sigh of relief.
But, before the ink was dry on the inquiry’s report, protestors tried another mechanism to block the project: registering the site as a village green. As Leslie Blohm, the barrister who defended York Council and JRHT at the inquiry, explains, the stakes were high.
If the site was registered by the council as a village green, under provisions of the Commons Act meant to protect green public spaces, ‘you can’t build on it. It’s a criminal offence to interfere with that land. Developers regard this as a vampire would regard garlic,’ says Mr Blohm.
The hearing over four days in February 2008, was adjudicated by Roger Lancaster, a Sheffield barrister, Mr Blohm recalls. On the one side, he was representing York Council and JRHT. On the other side, the protesters were representing themselves.
One hundred and fifty witness statements were presented to prove that the land had been used by joggers, dog walkers, mushroom pickers and children for more than two decades. If the locals could prove their case, the development would be cancelled.
But York Council and JRHT had a trump card. From 1976 to 2001, the land was used for grazing cattle. ‘The farmers turned up and they were solid Yeoman stock. They gave their evidence very well,’ notes Mr Blohm.
Locals had only been able to access the fields because of holes cut in the fencing erected to keep the cattle from wandering off, during this crucial 20-year period. The inspector found in favour of the council and JRHT. Work on Derwenthorpe could once again go ahead.
A fresh battle
But just when this hurdle was overcome, another popped up to take its place. Up to this point, Mr Ingram says, his team had taken the philosophical view that the planning system was democratic: it was right for locals to have their say.
‘I think if I’m perfectly straight with you, there were times when I was the only person who thought [Derwenthorpe] was going to happen,’
Mr Ingram acknowledges. But at the same time, JRHT knew it needed to carry on the fight. ‘We knew we were doing the right thing for the people who were in housing need.’
In June 2008, the European Commission noticed the project. When York agreed to sell the land to JRHT, was the proper protocol followed, it asked. Should a procurement exercise have been done? Yet another investigation was opened.
‘That was the lowest point for me,’ Mr Ingram says: he had just awarded an interim contract to Strata Construction to build phase one, which had to be cancelled as the project was put on hold. Procurement cases are negotiated between national government and Europe, so Mr Ingram’s team had to sit back and wait for the verdict.
‘It sat until April 2010 before Europe decided we could proceed,’ he says - the sale of the land went through that July, for £5.65 milllion. JRHT had to advertise for contractors so firms across the EU could bid for the work.
House builder David Wilson Homes prevailed, and, after all these years, work could begin. The first sod was turned in November 2010, as the contractor Mansell started to put in place the infrastructure a new town needs. In spring 2011, DWH started to build the houses.
Mr Woolley from York Council, is sanguine about the delay. ‘I’ve worked on a lot of major developments. They do take a long time… It’s the nature of our planning system.’
The localism debate
Mr Ingram says that only a change to the planning system could have cut the delays. ‘If other parties outside our control had made different decisions [such as if the local planning authority decided not to refer the case to a public inquiry], three to four years could have been saved,’ he says. But it’s too early, Mr Woolley adds, to see if the overhaul of the planning system this year by the Localism Act would affect these delays. There is not yet a York plan - the document meant to ease planning difficulties.
‘In principle, the localism agenda should help speed up the delivery of projects, because it takes out a number of tiers of decision-making,’ says Ian Tant, a senior partner at planning consultancy Barton Willmore. But ‘if you can’t demonstrate and can’t gain clear local support, then the negotiations could go on a considerable amount longer’.
Mr Ingram insists, however: ‘The Localism Bill would have had no impact whatsoever on the outcome, because we undertook a lot of the engagement and involvement of local people anyway.’
Opposition to the project still hasn’t totally abated. As recently as May 2010, Mark Warters was elected to Osbaldwick Council, and then as a York councillor in 2011, on a wave of support attributed to his position as the unofficial leader of protests against Derwen-thorpe. ‘That was the public reaction to seeing what’s happening,’ Mr Warters says. ‘Attitudes are hardening.’
Now buildings are starting to emerge from the construction site, Mr Warters describes the homes as ‘brutalist architecture’. But arguably this reflects the strength of the opposition, not the design of the houses, which have steeply sloping red tile roofs, and names like ‘wren’ and ‘mallard’.
An environmental boost
Looks aside, and frustrating as it is to wait more than a decade to start building, this incubation period has improved the environmental credentials of the houses.
In the original plans, the homes would have been built to the old eco-homes ‘excellent’ standard, but now they will meet the tougher levels 4 and 5 of the code for sustainable homes, leading to extra insulation and features like sun pipes (which transmit natural light to interior rooms).
Originally, each home would have had a conventional gas boiler. Now a biomass boiler will power a communal heating system, fed with wood chips from local Yorkshire forests.
During the wait, JRHT also built two prototype houses on the edge of the site, fitted with the advanced environmental features they hoped to use in Derwenthorpe.
The prototypes have been crucial to ensuring the project’s green ambitions made it beyond the architect’s blueprint. ‘People like Barratt [DWH is a brand name] would not have taken us seriously if we weren’t able to show them this is what we’ve prepared earlier. It was a real Blue Peter moment,’ Mr Ingram explains.
None of this would have happened if not for the setbacks to the project.
As of February, the show home was about to open, and the first resident - who has bought one of the homes at market value (up to £450,000) - was preparing to move in. Of the 64 homes in phase one, 39 will be sold at market value, 10 as shared equity homes and 15 will be let to JRHT tenants at social rents. Across Derwenthorpe, 40 per cent of the homes will be affordable.
The association has applied for planning permission for 123 homes in phase two. That means more rounds of planning scrutiny and securing the money to build.
JRHT is not expecting to have to wait another decade to get started. ‘It could come back to bite me if I’m wrong, but I’m an optimist,’ says
Mr Ingram. Also, many of the main issues have already been resolved - such as the right to build 540 homes and European procurement issues.
JRHT would do it again, Mr Ingram adds, ‘because they know the needs of the area. But I don’t think a commercial developer would’.
But as much as we look on the bright side, the price of delay is clear. JRHT has put it in monetary terms. But, as Mr Ingram says, the real cost is something more tangible still. ‘We could have financed a few more houses.’ In other words, the cost might be more Yorkshire residents stuck without a suitable affordable home.
December 1989 - Site designated for housing in the Greater York Study.
1998 - Discussions begin between York Council and the foundation to develop the site.
1999 - A competition to choose a masterplan is held, PRP Architects wins.
2002 - York Council signs an agreement to transfer the land to the Joseph Rowntree Housing Foundation, in return for ‘careful attention to environmental and social sustainability, provision of affordable housing and community participation’.
July - August 2003 - ‘Outline’ planning application made to York Council.
2003 - Local MP John Greenway presents a petition signed by 800 people calling for a public inquiry.
2004 - Two great crested newts discovered on the site. More environmental studies have to be done and the master plan is adjusted.
2005 - Local planners ‘minded to approve’ application, but local government office decides it needs to be called in for an inquiry by an independent planning inspector and the secretary of state.
June - July 2006 - Communities secretary Ruth Kelly calls in the planning application, kicking off a six-week public inquiry.
May 2007 - Ruth Kelly grants planning permission.
2007 - Protesters apply for Derwenthorpe site to be classified as a village green.
Early 2008 - Village green inquiry investigates and rejects the claim.
June 2008 - European Commission objects to the sale of land by York Council to the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust.
April 2010 - Commission rules JRHT must procure a developer for each phase.
November 2010 - Mansell chosen as infrastructure contractor.
March 2011 - David Wilson Homes selected to build homes, work starts onsite.
January 2012 - Phase two planning application lodged.
2015 - Phase three completed.
2016 - Derwenthorpe completed.