Dales park authority warns developers – ‘we are not a soft touch’

Members of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority have warned developers they are not “a soft touch” after allowing a housing charity to lower the number of affordable houses it must deliver on one of the most ambitious such schemes attempted in the highly protected area.

A meeting of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s planning committee heard agreeing to Northallerton-based housing association Broadacres’ request to help it overcome inflationary pressures on a 49-home in Sedbergh was a “pragmatic response” to an exceptional situation.

The committee heard making an apparent exception in its high-profile housing strategy was justified to help the not-for-profit organisation obtain funding for seven affordable rental homes from government body Homes England.

The housing association had warned that, 13 months after being granted consent for the scheme for 15 open market homes, 17 affordable or social rented homes and 17 affordable shared ownership homes, the costs of delivering the properties had risen so sharply it could face a loss of more than £1m.

The  meeting heard the housing association had raised the issue of rapidly rising costs with planning officers and if it was not granted Homes England funding, the worst case scenario was the seven properties going on the open market with a local occupancy restriction.

However, members were told Homes England had made positive indications about the grant and so the authority’s decision did not necessarily mean the number of affordable homes would change.

The park authority’s longest serving member Robert Heseltine said the proposal would turn out to be “the tip of the iceberg” of similar requests to the authority from developers seeking to reduce affordable housing elements of approved plans.

He said of all the country’s businesses, only property developers building affordable housing were given guaranteed profit margins and said if the authority approved the changes, it could be viewed as “a soft touch by developers”.

The Skipton councillor also questioned why the Northallerton-based housing association had not accounted for potential inflationary costs, highlighting that the scheme had only been approved 13 months ago.

He said: “This softening of our policy on affordable housing will be seen as weakness on our part by developers and will open the floodgates to financial sob stories and others to renegotiate the number of affordable homes for sale and for rent in the Yorkshire Dales. And it is our flagship policy – people need affordable homes.”

Richard Foster, the leader of Craven District Council, told the meeting it would have been difficult for the developers to predict how severe inflationary costs would be, saying the last year had seen the cost of plasterboard quadruple due to the war in Ukraine.

He said while “Homes England had huge amounts of money they can’t spend”, rules surrounding grants for affordable housing were continuing to prevent developers from getting the necessary funding.

He said: “We need to make it clear that we aren’t opening the floodgates, that this is a sensible way of getting this development moved forward and delivering our much-needed houses.”

Richard Graham, the authority’s planning boss, said approving the change would neither set a precedent or make it appear like a soft touch, as there were long-running negotiations over the amount of affordable housing with virtually every housing planning application.

He said as the developer was a charitable housing association, not necessarily seeking to make a profit and any profits they made would be recycled back into affordable housing elsewhere.

The meeting was told since the estate had been approved an independent study had concluded the costs of developing in the Sedbergh area were relatively high, so the expected 50 per cent affordable housing target was not viable.

After the meeting a Broadacres spokeswoman said the percentage of affordable homes on the site would be 69 per cent.

Director Helen Fielding said: “We are extremely grateful to the national park authority for making the changes necessary to help us secure the affordable homes at Sedbergh.

“In the current, very difficult climate we remain committed to delivering affordable homes for local people in rural communities, and the decision to vary the legal document governing the homes at Sedbergh allows us to ask Homes England to provide grant help, which if approved will help secure both the Sedbergh development, and our plans for more affordable homes across the Yorkshire Dales.”

Completion of the first phase of homes is expected to be from autumn 2023.