Northumberland housing model which could build future sustainability

New community-led development aims to provide affordable housing to sustain village life in Northumberland

Norman Hooks and Bill Rigby, another SCATA director, in December
Norman Hooks and Bill Rigby, another SCATA director, in December

How to survive in the future is a problem village communities have been wrestling with for years.

Affordable housing is just one concern and while it may be an issue everywhere it’s felt particularly acutely in rural areas.

Those which have seen their houses soar in value have watched their own residents priced out of the property market.

And with an influx of wealthy outsiders only too happy to move in to chase the rural dream, it’s little wonder many are fearful of losing their very identity.

But, as far as the property problem is concerned, one community reckons it has hit upon an answer.

At 10am today the village of Stocksfield in Northumberland will be officially unveiling a £900,000 housing development providing affordable houses for local people to rent.

It’s one of the first developments in the country to be led by a local community group and is set to prove the model for how villages can sustain themselves for future generations.

Norman Hooks and Pete Duncan last August
Norman Hooks and Pete Duncan last August

The project of six just-completed homes, whose opening will be marked with a tree-planting by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn, himself a resident of the village, is the first by SCATA Community Land Trust.

And the idea behind it is innovative.

It’s seen the local community come together to recognise that a prosperous village with high house prices will not be sustainable in decades to come without affordable homes for locals to rent.

SCATA stands for Stocksfield Community Association Trading Arm which was set up in 2012 and has been working on the project with social housing provider Isos which helped it access funding from HCA (Homes and Communities Agency).

Pete Duncan is one of the residents who helped set up SCATA and is now chairman of a core group of six.

Originally from London, the urban regeneration consultant moved to the North East to study at Newcastle University and never returned.

The married father-of-three has been settled in Stocksfield now for 30 years and used to be on the parish council.

He explained how the Community Land Trust developed after the parish plan identified a need for more affordable housing.

Building work in progress on the single Branch End bungalow - due for completion in June 2015
Building work in progress on the single Branch End bungalow - due for completion in June 2015

“Stocksfield is a high value area,” he pointed out. “Land prices are high, house prices are high and a lot a villages, particularly rural ones, find it very hard to provide new affordable homes.

“There haven’t been any affordable homes for rent or to buy in Stocksfield for 25 years; none whatsoever.”

He added: “One of the things that came out of the parish plan was that it would be good to have some but a lot of people in the village were very concerned about any new development being built on green belt and Stocksfield is surrounded by green belt.

“So we got our heads together and thought there must be some sites of previous developments - brownfield sites.”

They finally found two potential spots: one at Guessburn, which was an overgrown spot with a building that used to be a snooker club, now long out of use.

The next step was to identify and track down its owner before the long process of negotiation and purchase could begin.

And they also secured an even sweeter deal by arranging with one of the trustees of the old snooker club, who also runs the village’s cricket club, to re-invest the money spent into the cricket club and extra facilities.

The Guessburn site before development - with the old Snooker Club building in the foreground
The Guessburn site before development - with the old Snooker Club building in the foreground

Along the way there was plenty of free advice to be had from Northumberland County Council through Social Enterprise Northumberland and it all proved a huge learning curve.

If they embark on a similar scheme in the future - and this would depend on another brownfield site becoming available - they would be confident to go it alone.

“There are advantages to that as it would give us more control,” said Pete.

And any surplus money from rents could be ploughed back into the community.

For now all eyes are on the Guessburn site where the first residents have already moved in to the four flats, with rents of £95 a week, and two bungalows at around £101, plus a small service charge.

The Community Land Trust will continue to own the land and Isos will lease the properties, manage and maintain them, although the coming election result has potential to throw a future spanner in the works, given the Conservative’s proposals to extend the right-to-buy scheme for housing association tenants.

For the most part, the village has been fully behind the scheme, which will also soon see the completion of another bungalow at the second chosen site at the other end of the village.

The completed Guessburn development
The completed Guessburn development

Pete said there was “huge public support” from those of Stocksfield’s 1,200 households who responded to the consultation questionnaire. They agreed with the need for affordable housing for those who, for instance, had family in the village or who had left and now wanted to return to care for elderly relatives.

But there were concerns from some people living immediately next to the Guessburn site who sent the council a 70-name petition protesting at the planning application.

It was still approved and it seems that, following a few changes light on the concerns, there were no further complaints once building work started.

And the new homes were snapped up through the council’s Homefinder scheme which operates a bit like the old waiting list system, with priority given to those with a direct connection to the village.

“We had more than 60 people interested in the seven homes,” said Pete.

He’s delighted at how it’s all panned out and thinks it’s the way forward for villages UK-wide, particularly those struggling in a rapidly-changing world.

Duncan Clark (contractor), Vince Walsh (Isos Housing) and Norman Hooks (SCATA) at a keys handover ceremony in early April 2015
Duncan Clark (contractor), Vince Walsh (Isos Housing) and Norman Hooks (SCATA) at a keys handover ceremony in early April 2015

“I think it’s the best way ahead for communities under a bit of pressure,” he said.

“What happens in a lot of villages is that young people when they want to have families or whatever have to move out as there’s nowhere to rent a house or they can’t afford to.

“I suppose the Lake District is the ultimate example of where young people can’t afford anything as it’s too expensive or not suitable.”

He estimates there are about 140 Community Land Trusts in all with two up-and-running in Northumberland, including The Glendale Trust in Wooller, which he describes as pioneering, and another at Holy Island.

He said: “Providing affordable homes for rent in any village is really quite difficult so the great thing about a Community Land Trust is that the community is doing it for themselves.

“It’s a group of people coming together saying if there’s nobody to sort our problems, we’ll do it’.

“If people are prepared to put the time in they can do it and lots of villages are doing just that, from developing houses to taking over pubs that have gone out of business, Post Offices and shops.

One of the completed bungalows
One of the completed bungalows

“There are a range of things up and down the country by those not prepared to let their village die.

“It’s fantastic.”

He added: “The Community Land Trust is a relatively new concept.

“Whichever government has been in power over the last 30 years there has been some support, not enough but some, for communities taking the initiative, doing things for themselves and making a difference. But it’s never really had a huge push.

“It just needs that. I think every village should have a Community Land Trust!”

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