Council’s vision for using its land to build homes for the future
PUBLISHED: 07:30 15 November 2019
Suffolk County Council - one of Suffolk’s largest landowners - has outlined its vision for utilising vacant land for housing and which could include much needed bungalow and small family home developments.
The authority is the third largest landowner in the county, and in May Conservative leader Matthew Hicks announced plans to sell vacant land and properties to support house building.
The council's team has now spelled out its vision for those homes, and confirmed it would ensure developments would include much-needed infrastructure improvements such as schools, GP surgeries and road improvements, and make sure they were suitable for those communities.
Conservative cabinet member for economic development, housing and enterprise, Nick Gowrley, said: "We need to make it quite clear it's a county council approach to housing - how we can use our assets for the betterment of the people of Suffolk.
"We are trying to make sure we get best value for our land. But it's not just about finances it's also about the social value we can add to the project.
"It gives us a degree of influence because we are developing our own land that we need to make the most of."
It is understood the council has around 50 vacant buildings currently, including some former middle schools, as well as single properties, offices and other buildings.
Mr Gowrley said: "It's about the best use for those assets. For the people that are going to be living in those houses the development is part of a package.
"From a county council point of view we can help to influence that in a favourable way for the people of Suffolk by creating communities rather than just going in and building houses.
"In a lot of rural Suffolk the most profitable development is for large homes of high value but what a lot of rural communities need is smaller homes for smaller families to buy or rent. If we left it to the market we might not get those but the county, by influencing its land that is developed, can achieve this.
"It's the right type of housing in the right place for the right reasons."
As part of the council's new approach to its property, investigations are underway into forming a joint venture company that would work on the early stages of development and financial arrangements, utilising private sector skills and spreading the risk. It is understood it will not be a house building company, although no formal decision has been made yet.
The plan means that property that is no longer needed can be developed to generate income and protect cutbacks from frontline council budgets as council budgets continue to be squeezed.
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It also aims to help provide longer term community infrastructure instead of piecemeal development, and protect against speculative developers attempting to make large profit margins from housing which is not suitable for a particular area.
A report had been due to be presented to the council's cabinet in December which will outline more of the work planned, however it is now expected in the New Year because of the General Election.
But the council's opposition Labour group has warned that the plan must not fall by the wayside like the Barley Homes project - a joint housing company formed with West Suffolk Council which the county council pulled out of before a single home was built.
Labour group leader Sarah Adams said: "I hope this is a better-thought out proposal than the Conservatives' Barley Homes disaster, a project that failed to build a single home despite costing taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds.
"All local authorities in Suffolk must be properly consulted to ensure that this strategy fits with local plans and projected housing need.
"If council land is going to be sold off then district and borough councils should be given first refusal to ensure the maximum amount of social housing is built.
"The last thing we need is for the Tories to sell off prime plots to their private developer chums to build expensive executive housing that local residents can't afford."
Case study: Cockfield
A recent project in Cockfield, West Suffolk, featuring land owned by the county council and sold to Orwell Housing Association, is an example of the kind of development the council is keen to replicate.
Construction is due to start in early 2020 on 51 homes, which includes a healthy mix of affordable rent houses and flats, first time buyer homes, open market detached houses, shared ownership builds, bungalows and self-build plots.
The council secured a profit-sharing deal with Orwell Housing, and, while Orwell Housing own and rent out the properties, rent is charged at 80% of the market rent value.
Mr Gowrley said: "The development in Cockfield, which was developed in close co-operation with the district council and the local community, is exactly how SCC wants to explore our land assets.
"It isn't about developing every square inch of land and it isn't about putting the financial return first every time.
"It is also about adding real social value to local communities, enhancing their way of life and building the right sustainable developments for the future."