Picturesque countryside and sandy beaches have made Dorset a great place for holidays, but they have also resulted in it having some of the country’s highest house prices and some of the most costly and sensitive locations in which to try to bring forward housebuilding.
As a result, local news outlet the Bridport & Lyme Regis News this month questioned whether house prices were escalating beyond the reach of its local population. It drew attention to Land Registry data for 2017, noting that the county’s average house price had risen to more than 13 times its average salary.
Across the region, however, communities are taking action to provide housing that local people can afford, by establishing community land trusts (CLTs). Many are doing so with the help of Wessex Community Assets, a group that created and tested the community benefit society model being used by CLTs and now helps rural communities across Somerset, Dorset and Devon to navigate the process of securing land and finance.
One recently completed project in the region is Garman’s Field, in Lyme Regis, a scheme of 15 affordable rented homes for local people delivered by Lyme Regis CLT, working with housing provider Yarlington Housing Group.
Lyme Regis has a number of factors - including high property prices, ecological and heritage constraints and difficult ground conditions – that make it a challenging location in which to develop affordable housing. Lyme Regis CLT began looking at land in 2014 and was fortunate in securing a greenfield hilltop site, of just over an acre, from a landowner at exception site value, rather than full development market value.
The site’s location, just outside Lyme Regis, was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and so development would inevitably be sensitive.
The development partners also had to set local connection criteria to ensure that the homes would be occupied by local tenants and meet their needs.
The CLT benefitted from advice from Wessex Community Assets in the early stages of the project, and then selected Yarlington as its affordable housing partner. CLTs do not have to collaborate with development partners, but the working arrangement benefits both. CLTs would otherwise have to register as housing associations to secure grant, and can share in the housing provider’s construction, management and maintenance expertise. "These projects are often more expensive due to the availability of land, which is often lacking infrastructure. As these schemes are generally fairly small the costs are disproportionately high. Yarlington is able to resource these schemes by accessing grant and applying internal subsidy," says Louise Lote, development project manager at Yarlington. The project has been supported by government agency Homes England and West Dorset District Council.
Garman’s Field is Yarlington’s third CLT project and working with rural communities is close to its heart, says Lote. The group was formed through the transfer of South Somerset District Council stock, much of it in rural locations. CLTs are a key route to continuing to meet rural housing need within its 250 homes a year programme, Lote points out: "Developing in rural areas is difficult and this allows homes to be delivered with the community and protected in perpetuity for local people".
Garman’s Field is very much the CLT’s project, continues Lote. "The CLT route creates a unique scheme – the CLT appoints the architect and decides on the design." The housing association appoints the contractor, and sits alongside the CLT in project meetings. At public consultation stage the housing association takes a back seat, ensuring that the voice of local people is the loudest, although it can be a useful bridge when tensions arise over development. "People can understandably become passionate about local projects, and that’s where we can step in as a third party," says Lote.
The development mix on Garman’s Field was driven by local needs data. The 15 homes comprise six one bedroom homes, two being semi-detached houses and four apartments. The scheme design by architect Boon Brown (shown below) also includes five two bedroom houses and four three bedroom houses.
Because of the location’s environmental sensitivity, West Dorset District Council’s planning officer was unable to support the proposal, but when the application came before the planning committee it was voted through by 11 votes to one. Approval was recognition of local need for affordable homes, and says Lote, "We have done all that we can to mitigate the impact of development with a landscape buffer."
The homes are intended for those who live or work in Lyme Regis. The town isn’t classified as a rural area, so rural connection criteria are not enshrined in the Section 106. "We had to work hard to get the balance right," explains Lote. "As we are responsible for lettings, we needed to ensure we would not have voids that could make the scheme unviable, but we also wanted a strong allocations plan." While such criteria usually require residency for two years out of 10, Garman’s Field’s tenants must have five years. Employment criteria have also been strengthened, to ensure homes don’t go to temporary summer staff, so workers must be employed in the town for at least 16 hours a week.
Rents are set at up to 80 per cent of market levels. "But Lyme Regis has high rents because of holiday lets, so the level for these homes is capped at Local Housing Allowance rates," explains Lote. For a one bedroom home, weekly rent is currently capped at £105.
The homes are now completed and occupied by local people.
The project (shown below) had a locally based architect and a local contractor, CG Fry and Sons, and both were experienced in working with CLTs. "Appointing local contractors and consultants was also an important part of the scheme, providing local employment opportunities," says Lote.
Yarlington provides a range of housing solutions to meet different people’s needs but working with a CLT is a very different process to working alone. "Homes can perhaps be delivered faster, because the CLT moves things along, but projects are resource-intensive because we’re working with lay people and explaining the processes," says Lote. "That’s why we only work on one CLT project at a time."
Still, the effort is extremely worthwhile, she says. "I’ve a lot of respect for our CLT partners. They are doing this voluntarily for their community – they don’t benefit personally from the homes." For Yarlington, this is now its prime route to delivering rural homes, adds Lote."It allows us to work with a community, rather than imposing homes on them."