Background:

Keswick is a small market town in northern Cumbria, with a population of approximately 5,0001.     In 2009 discussions led by Churches Together in Keswick around the subject of ‘Exploring our Community’ identified a number of challenges that faced the community, such as loss of young people, health and the impact of tourism.  A consensus was reached that everything came back to housing that is affordable, secure and available to local people.

A lack of affordable housing in the town meant that people, particularly younger people and young families could not afford to live there and so either had to leave the area completely, or live some distance from the town and travel there for employment and to access services.   The group had seen that, whilst at that time Eden Housing Association had a number of shared ownership properties in the town, these were empty as people could not afford both the mortgage on part of the property and the rent on the other part.  Everyone on the group knew someone who needed affordable housing, but importantly this demand was supported by the Housing Needs Assessment done by Allerdale Borough Council.  The Housing Needs Assessment at that time showed that housing was unaffordable to most of the local population, the highest demand was for 3-bedroom rental properties and that employers were experiencing problems recruiting a local workforce.

A group was formed to see what could be done to address this and around that time, some land became available from St John’s church.  It was an unconsecrated site planned to be used for burials, but was not suitable for this due to water levels.  A swale was dug along the perimeter of the site to enable housing to be built on the site. This case study explores the first project delivered by Keswick Community Housing Trust (KCHT) – The Hopes.  The aim was to develop truly affordable housing in perpetuity for local people.

The Hopes housing development

Organisation

The group set up Keswick Community Housing Trust (KCHT), a Community Land Trust and Registered Housing Provider with charitable status and is registered with the Financial Services Authority as an Industrial and Provident Society.  Being a registered charity was important as this meant that tenants do not have a right to buy, which means that the Trust can retain the housing stock and maintain it as affordable in perpetuity.

KCHT has a Board of Directors, currently comprising 11 Directors, with 1 vacancy.  The constitution requires that a proportion of the Directors are KCHT tenants. Anyone who shares the values of the organisation can become a member on payment of £1. The Board meets twice monthly and sometimes establishes focus groups to deal with particular issues that arise. Directors are elected by members at the KCHT AGM and members are encouraged to stand for election to the Board.  The Board has robust debates and discussions on all aspects of its work, but within an ethos of respect, described by one Board member as ‘We don’t always agree, but we don’t fall out about it’.

The Board member have a range of skills and expertise, with some focussing on the big picture and others on the detail of the development.  Skills that the Board regarded as important in successfully delivering their housing schemes, include financial management, strong team leadership and professional knowledge of the local property market.  Links to existing organisations, such as the Town Council was also regarded as important, as was the willingness to learn new skills and see projects through to completion.

Planning

The Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) was very supportive of the scheme, as affordable housing for local people was one of their priorities.  Day Cummins Architects submitted the planning application on behalf of KCHT.  There were a few objections mainly from people who had family buried in the graveyard and were concerned that the development might have an adverse impact on the peace and tranquillity of the graveyard.  To address this, KCHT were required to build a wall between the graveyard and the housing development; other than that, there were no major issues in getting planning consent.

Support

The group benefitted from advice and support from the early stages of development of The Hopes housing project from the Cumbria Rural Housing Trust.  Advice was given on everything from the appropriate structure to set up, to developing the business plan which gave credibility to the group, who described themselves as ‘a gang of amateurs’, when approaching organisations such the Keswick Town Council and the Cumberland Building Society.

Funding

The group received funding from a number of organisations during the early stages of development, these included: The Tudor Trust, the Quakers, the Lake District National Park Authority, Keswick Town Council and Keswick Lions and a number of gifts were made by individuals.  This funding was critical at this stage as it enabled the group to undertake business planning, appoint solicitors to draw up the KCHT governing documents and to pay the architects to draw up the designs and submit the planning application for the development.  Planning consent was needed in order to secure a loan for the development. Some KCHT members also loaned some money to the Trust to undertake the development work, which was done at risk and the solicitor halved their fees.

The Cumberland Building Society agreed to provide a £1.2m loan to KCHT to deliver the scheme.  One of the conditions of funding was that a minimum of £50,000 was raised locally.  KCHT launched a community share offer to do this and raised £63,0002.   There is no dividend payable to shareholders and many have offered to give the shares as a gift on their death. Remaining affordable housing grant funds were provided by Homes England.

Delivery

One of the guiding principles of KCHT was to use local suppliers and services wherever possible.  They interviewed a number of QS firms and appointed Donleys Quantity Surveyors (QS) of Carlisle, who provided project management services on behalf of KCHT as the client, including managing tendering processes for building contractors and cost control. Whilst there was a cost to appointing a QS to undertake this work, it was a sensible approach and they have saved the project more money than their services cost. Following interviews, KCHT also appointed Day Cummins Architects, of Cockermouth to design The Hopes housing development.

It took 2 years to set up KCHT and negotiate the purchase of the first site it developed which became known as The Hopes development.  It was originally thought that the site was owned by the Diocese of Carlisle, but as negotiations progressed, it was found that the Diocese leased the land from Lowther Estate, so this prolonged the negotiation.

During this time the proportion of government grant available for affordable housing provision fell significantly, so the financial models for the scheme had to be reworked, which resulted in a change from a wholly rental development to a mix of rental and shared ownership.

The site was purchased using various donations from organisations including Keswick Town Council and Keswick Lions, as well as grants from LDNPA and the Homes England and money from the share offer.

The scheme was designed to provide 11 three- bedroom houses.  Of these, 5 are rental properties, 5 are shared ownership and 1 was sold privately with a local occupancy clause.  The houses were completed in November 2013 and the funds from the sale of both the wholly privately sold property and the half of the shared ownership properties were transferred to KCHT and then to the Cumberland Building Society to repay part of the loan funding.

The builder contracted to construct the scheme by KCHT was Atkinsons.

The KCHT was keen that the houses were designed to be as sustainable as possible as they felt strongly that families with low incomes also need cheaper bills as well as cheaper houses. The finished properties each have two Photovoltaic panels on the roof.  These are eligible for Feed In Tariff payments and these payments go to the individual householders. Each house also has a heat distribution fan to circulate heat around the property.

The Hopes scheme has been delivered to Lifetime Homes Standard level 3-43.  At the time, the Homes England required a minimum level 3 for all new affordable housing.

Note that the approach to Housing Standards may now be dealt with differently by the Homes England4.

From setting up a group to discuss how to address the issue of affordable rural housing for local people in 2009, it took 4 years to complete the development and have the first tenants move in December 2013.

The Hopes housing development

Allocation of housing and rental levels

KCHT has a housing allocation policy used to decide who can be allocated a property on any of their developments5.  There are four criteria that applicants must meet including; inability to afford local, open market purchase or local private rental housing, and evidence of existing links with Keswick.  There are then a further four criteria used to determine the priority between one applicant and another including current accommodation and employment.

Twice as many applications were received by KCHT than there were properties available at The Hopes scheme.  The allocations policy was used to select the prospective tenants/owners of the 10 rental/shared ownership properties and then numbers were ‘pulled out of a hat’ to allocate the individual houses to the tenants/owners.  It was felt important to mix the wholly rented houses and the shared ownership houses across the development.

Having learned from the difficulties faced by the Housing Association in selling/letting its shared ownership properties, KCHT chose to charge, but not collect the rent on the shared ownership properties, as this would have made them unaffordable.

It was very important to KCHT that they were creating a small community through The Hopes development, not just a collection of houses.

The average house price and rent in Keswick are much higher than the national averages and the average wage in the town is much lower than the national average. Therefore, KCHT sets the rents as low as they can in order to cover their costs and increases are kept to a minimum. The KCHT Board have always thought that social housing providers nationally should be allowed to set rents related to average income as they feel the current definition of ‘affordable housing’ is not correct.  The rent is set at more than £100/month less than the local housing association for an equivalent house.

A Success Story

Since The Hopes development, KCHT has gone on to develop and manage 3 other schemes in the town:

  • The Calvert Way development was delivered by the developer and then KCHT purchased 22 houses from them, again a mix of rental and shared ownership properties, which minimised the risks to KCHT. This scheme was therefore developed in a different way to The Hopes scheme, where KCHT undertook or commissioned all the work.  When KCHT invited applications for tenants/owners of their houses, they received 127 applications for the 22 houses.  As part of the wider development, Impact Housing Association own 23 houses and there are a further 10 houses in private ownership, with local occupancy conditions.

Photo courtesy of Keswick Community Housing Trust. Calvert Way is the housing development at the bottom of the picture.

Photo courtesy of Keswick Community Housing Trust. Calvert Way is the housing development at the bottom of the picture.

  • Banks Court was a disused toilet block in the centre of Keswick, which was owned by Allerdale Borough Council. The Council sold the block to KCHT for £1 and they converted it into 4 single occupancy apartments.
  • The most recent development by KCHT is to the rear of the Methodist Church on Southey St. This is a conversion and replacement of outbuildings into: 3, three bedroomed and 1, two-bedroomed houses.

Banks Court

These developments will bring the total number of properties in Keswick that KCHT owns to 40, which is enabling the Trust to buy in a service contract to undertake the day to day management services of the houses. This will enable the Board members to reduce the level of work they have had to do on a purely voluntary basis over the last few years.  The duties this will cover include:

  • Making monthly checks that all rents are paid and following up any omissions.
  • Informing tenants in writing of annual changes to rent and/or maintenance charges.
  • Notifying tenants and shareholders in writing of the Annual General Meeting and to arrange a notice of the meeting in the Keswick Reminder inviting all interested parties to attend.
  • Arranging annual insurance for all properties.

Through the work of KCHT, affordable, high quality, secure housing has been delivered for local people in housing need. This has had a demonstrably beneficial impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals and families who are tenants in the KCHT houses.

Lessons learned

  1. Support from knowledgeable people who understand the local area and community led housing is essential when embarking on a community led housing scheme to advise, for example on which is the best organisational structure to adopt. This was provided for free by Cumbria Rural Housing Trust.  It was important that this was a free service, as the group members are all volunteers and had no funding at the start.
  2. Unrestricted financial support in the early stages was very important. This enabled KCHT to pay for essential set up costs, such as solicitor fees and QS and architect services.
  3. Getting the land purchased at lower than market value, as a result of support from the church was extremely helpful in developing a financially viable scheme.
  4. There is a stigma associated with social housing, with some people concerned about the type of tenants that the development might attract. This has been overcome through delivering a high-quality scheme for local people in housing need.
  5. Don’t grow too big too quickly. KCHT has 4 schemes totalling 40 rental and shared ownership properties, developed over 8 years and may be a victim of its own success. Most community housing trusts only have one housing scheme.
  6. The group managing the developments need to support and appreciate each other, recognise achievements and try and share the workload across all members to avoid burn out.
  7. Detailed housing needs assessments should be undertaken at a settlement level, as when done at a district level, this can mask some very acute challenges faced by individual communities, such as the high level of second home ownership in some places. This is changing and there is more support available now as a result of the Community led Housing Fund.
  8. More understanding and flexibility is needed by government agencies at a national level in dealing with those leading community led housing at a local level. Whilst individuals are highly skilled and knowledgeable and understand the important of transparency and accountability, they are often doing this is in a voluntary capacity and so do not have the luxury of being salaried individuals who are able to respond to requests for information at short notice.  KCHT gave the example that they are being audited by the Homes England for the 3rd year in a row, despite the first 2 audits fully meeting all requirements.

References:

  1. ukcensusdata.com
  2. keswickcommunityhousingtrust.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Share-Offer-Prospectus1.pdf
  3. www.lifetimehomes.org.uk/pages/revised-design-criteria.html
  4. gov.uk/government/organisations/homes-and-communities-agency
  5. keswickcommunityhousingtrust.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Housing-Allocations-Policy-2016.pdf