Self build plots on market at Lowfields

The UK’s first-ever council-led development of custom-build plots with some specifically designated for first time buyers, will welcome bids from buyers from 1 November.

The six custom-build plots are part of a larger mixed-use development of 140 new homes at Lowfield Green by City of York Council.

The development is controversial as it has seen a valued green open space – used for sporting activities – built on. Residents – who formed their own action group to oppose the plans – are also concerned about delays in the overall development timetable.

Two of the plots have been restricted for first time buyers only, as they offer a more affordable option, and are designed to help people on to the property ladder. This supports the council’s pledge to offer a breadth of options to a range of lower-income households and is in addition to shared ownership of homes from the open market as well as council-owned homes. 40% of all the homes at Lowfield Green will be affordable and Homes England helped fund work done to prepare the site for development.

Idealised image of self build homes

Custom-build plots are serviced with all required utilities – electricity, water and telephone cable – as well as with road access to enable buyers to get on site. With outline planning permission already secured, construction can begin immediately after detailed planning has been granted.

All plots are large enough for a detached home of between three and five bedrooms with an integrated garage if needed. They also benefit from south-facing back gardens and uninterrupted views of the new village green to the front. This former secondary school site has been sensitively master planned around a new green open space to contribute towards creating an attractive new place to live in the city.

To support this innovative self-build project, City of York Council has engaged Custom Build Homes – the UK’s leading enabler of custom build housing – to deliver aspects of the development process including; consultancy, pre-agreed mortgage lending as well as leading the sales and marketing for the site.

Bidding for all 6 plots opens on 1 November and all bids need to be in for 29 November. Prospective purchasers will have the opportunity to view the plots, with the first viewings to be arranged by appointment only, on the morning of Saturday 9 November. All bids will be assessed and, if no suitable applications have been received by first time buyers, the allocated plots may be offered to other applicants. More detail is available by visiting lowfieldgreen.custombuildhomes.co.uk

All serviced plots can be seen and bid for at lowfieldgreen.custombuildhomes.co.uk or email lowfieldgreen@custombuildhomes.co.uk for more information.

Troubled York Council land sale – more details

More details of the York Council’s controversial decision to sell land to the Yorspace community housing group are emerging. In response to a Freedom of Information request the Council has provided a copy of the independent valuation that it obtained for the land at Lowfields.

Yorspace Lowfield development

The valuation states that the site may be sold to a community housing group for £300,000 which “represents a 20% discount on market value”. However, the valuation report is based on the construction of 10 semi-detached homes on the land.

The Yorspace proposal envisages a 19 unit, high density, development.

So the scale of the taxpayer subsidy remains obscure. The only way to test the financial assumptions would be to market the site, comparing offers for social housing with a commercial alternative.

While Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 does allow Local Authorities to sell, in certain circumstances, land at below market value and without seeking competitive bids, that discretion is not unfettered.

The Council constitution requires a reason for such a sale to be minuted. There is no such reason given in the record of the officer decision taken on 18th January 2019

Construction of roads at Lowfields is almost complete.

The record of the meeting says, The Mutual Home Ownership Society housing model they use is designed as such that they will be economically accessible to lower income families and the affordability of the homes is maintained in perpetuity”.

The council has not, so far, chosen to include, in the terms of the proposed sale, a requirement that occupiers MUST be lower income families and/or that they should currently be registered on the home choice/housing waiting list..

As the development has NOT been classified as “affordable housing” in the Local Plan, the Council must legally provide a specific reason for giving preferential treatment to a particular group.

Valuation report published

The reason might be, for example, to create local jobs, to provide accessible leisure facilities, to provide homes for those on the waiting list or whatever.

However, an auditable rationale is a legal requirement.

The sale to Yorspace has not been completed yet but is expected next month. A further report to a council committee on the scheme is expected on 26th September.

Meanwhile it has emerged that no progress has been made in selling any “self-build“ plots at Lowfield

The Council says that marketing material for the plots is being prepared by the Community and Self-Build Officer, in conjunction with Custom Build Homes, who are the sale agent for the plots.

Self build homes are likely to be worth more than the construction cost.

 “A promotional event was held last year, and it is planned that another event will be held at the start of the marketing launch”.

 Plots will be promoted through the council, the Custom Build Homes website and Rightmove. Plots will go on sale this Autumn.

The buyers must have started construction work within 12 months of purchase and have completed all works within 2 years”.

Community build and self-build housing under spotlight

More questions on Lowfields Plans

For the first time in nearly 3 years, the Councils Executive will review what is happening with the “Yorspace” communal housing project at Lowfield. A meeting, being held on 26th September, will consider “Progress and Opportunities for Self and Community Build Housing” in the City.

Development site

The report comes in the wake of concerns being expressed about a large discount being agreed, by a Council official, for the transfer of a building plot to the Yorspace  “Community Benefit” Society .

Although Yorspace haven’t endeared themselves to the existing local community in Westfield, because of their trenchant support for the development of the playing field which is adjacent to their site, the main concern relates to the “affordability” of the homes that they hope to construct.

A Council official, at a private meeting held in August 2017, agreed an “exclusivity agreement” to sell the land to what was then styled as a  “Mutual Home Ownership Society”. The official decided that a discount could be offered because individuals would not benefit financially from the deal. Homeowners would buy shares in the Co-op in return for the leasehold of a property. When they move on, they can sell the shares.

No alternative proposals for the land were considered, there was no analysis of the advantages of communal ownership compared to those offered by the construction of (say) more Council houses on the land or indeed the possibility of an open market sale with the proceeds being used to quickly increase the availability of social housing in the City.

The report in 2017 gave an estimate of the value of the site. That figure remains confidential.  Another “behind closed doors” meeting held in January of this year valued the land – after discount – at £300,000.

Another, smaller, site at Lowfields recently sold for over £400,000.

 The Council justified its decision by quoting Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 which allow authorities to dispose of land other than at its full value.

However, that power is heavily constrained.

The issue with this sale relates to the absence of an “end occupier” agreement. Council officials confirmed, when considering amendments to the Local Plan, that this development would not be classified as “affordable”. This is because there is currently no requirement for the shareholder in the Co-op to be in housing need.

The Council could have insisted that, in return for any discount, the homes must be occupied by low income families or, at least, by transferring existing social tenants.

They did neither, as was confirmed in a response to a Freedom of Information enquiry a few months ago.

In effect, taxpayers may be subsidising the housing costs of relatively wealthy individuals.

Hopefully, the new report will candidly address these issues.

When the land sale was approved, Yorspace agreed to complete their development within 3 years. No work has started there or on the adjacent “self-build” plots. No construction timetables have been published.

NB. We have submitted a FOI request for information on the Council’s “shared ownership” programme. The last report (to another “behind closed doors” meeting held last year) suggested that such a model would not be of interest to existing social tenants or those on the waiting list. The Councils Executive has yet to review progress on this scheme (which accounts for a significant proportion of new build plans for the City)

Housing – Is the Councils policy working?

Statistics for the last available quarter (Jan – Mar) reveal that the number of house building starts in York fell.

Those attending a recent housing scrutiny committee, will have  witnessed a mundane exchange about obstacles to increasing the amount of social housing in the City. Most comment centred on the lack of skilled labour in the sector, with a joint plan with York College the only idea cited to address the issue. Historically, of course, such skills have been imported from other parts of the country, and indeed Europe, to meet peaks in the house building programme.

Other questions remain unanswered.

While the Council policy of purchasing empty homes on the open market – to add to the Council housing pool – has been a limited success, other “innovations” have stalled.

There are around 200 people on the “self-build” register in the City. Plots were allocated for their use at the new Lowfields development. It turns out that the Council has made no progress in finding buyers for the plots. This is another worrying factor on this controversial development where neighbouring residents have given a high priority to having the site development completed quickly. Self build is one of the slowest ways of providing a house, so hopes that the builders would leave Lowfields within 3 years are fading.

Nearby the future of the Yorspace communal living experiment remains in doubt. The Councils decision to sell a plot to them at a discount is likely to face a further challenge if and when contracts are exchanged.

These are both relatively small initiatives, though, compared to the Council’s decision to go big on shared ownership programmes.

Shared ownership allows people to buy a share of between 25% and 75% of a home from a landlord, usually the council or a housing association, and rent the remaining share at a reduced rent. Of the 600 affordable housing units the Council expects to build over the next few years, almost half will be designated as “shared ownership”.

Support for shared ownership came mainly from former Conservative Councillors at the authority (mostly not re-elected in May). Ironically they argued that the scheme would avoid the pitfall of “right to buy” applications which could impact on the rental availability of any new Council houses built, almost as soon as they were completed.

But the early signs are that there is only a very limited market for shared ownership tenure in York. Few of the 1700 or so who are on the housing waiting list seem to see this as a solution to their problems. (Many are older people seeking to “downsize”)

The Council offers to help individuals (with incomes of less than £80,000 a year) to buy homes on the open market and then allocate them to shared ownership. It has not published any figures which show how many have taken up this offer.

The Council also has some new build and conversion properties which it markets itself as shared ownership. It says on its web site that it does not have any such properties available at present. Nevertheless, it continues to advertise properties on Cemetery Road.

Again, no performance stats have been published by the Council. Councillors need to question how the shared ownership programme is impacting on the housing waiting list.

They may also wish to question further whether the Council is right to set up its own development and sales arm.

Local estate agents are better qualified to find buyers and renters.

Lowfields playing field development – self builders sought

Lowfields plans

People wanting to build their own home are invited to drop in to West Offices between 6pm and 8pm on Tuesday 11 July to find out about opportunities at what the Council styles as its “Lowfield Green” development.

The self build site is adjacent to the controversial playing field development which is being opposed by local residents. The self build site backs onto Tudor Road

The Council says that later in July, neighbours of the Lowfield site will be invited to attend a drop-in session at Gateway Community Centre, Front Street, Acomb (Tuesday 18th July between 4.30 pm and 7.00 pm) to see how the proposals have developed since the public engagement last year and in advance of the submission of a planning application later this summer.

There will also be a display of the Lowfield Green proposals at Acomb Explore from 18th July 2017 and the master plan drawing will also be available online.

The Lowfields Action Group is planning to oppose any move to build on the playing fields,. They believe that the Council has misjudged the protection which is afforded by national legislation for green spaces of this sort.

The Council says it wants to encourage self-build housing and in 2016, councillors agreed to include space for self-build plots on the southern part of the former Lowfield School site in Acomb.

This development will include new housing, housing for over 55’s and a residential care home.

This self build event will showcase self-build housing and the planned plots at Lowfield Green.

An application for outline planning permission for self-build homes on this land will be made later this year and the plots will become available in 2018.

Some 90 people who have expressed an interest in creating their own home have been invited to the event to discuss how the council can help, and others are also welcome to attend. Besides conversations with council officers, representatives from YorSpace, the community-led housing group, will be there as well to discuss individual plans, ideas and to listen to views on what interested residents would like to see on their development. YorSpace plans to construct 19 homes with communal space and shared gardens on land set aside for this purpose at Lowfield Green.