Tom Hunt was a European Parliamentary candidate for East of England in 2014 and is a local councillor from East Cambridgeshire.
Without doubt, housing will be one of the key issues going into the next general election. Despite much heavy lifting by the coalition Government, whichever party offers the best policy solutions to what remains a housing crisis will have an electoral edge. For the Conservative Party, a key and unalterable priority should be to do everything we can to help give people a hand onto the property ladder.
A key way in which the Tories and Conservative local authorities up and down the country can help first time buyers and local communities is by backing Community Land Trusts (CLTs). I have seen at first hand as a local councillor the opportunities that CLT’s can provide to hard-working local people who aspire to own a home in the area in which they have grown up, but currently feel shut out of.
In East Cambridgeshire, we set up the county’s first CLT in the picturesque village of Stretham that lies between Ely and Cambridge. According to Home Track, the property analysts, house prices in Cambridge have actually grown at a faster rate than in London since the onset of the financial crisis. The average property is now valued at £348,300: that is 32.5 per cent higher than its 2007 peak.
The booming science park in Cambridge and the associated growth of the silicon fen has meant that many who work in Cambridge have looked to rent or buy outside the city in the surrounding villages which are more affordable.
However, one of the negative consequences of this has been that many of the local young people in these villages have struggled to rent and buy affordably as a result of the increased house prices and rent linked to this increase in demand which in turn is linked to the explosion of the Cambridge property market.
Being in work, the vast majority do not qualify for council housing, but also struggle to rent privately, often remaining living with their parents for many years, or leaving the area where they were bought up. Tight planning restrictions and opposition to development has also added to this acute shortage of affordable housing.
Stretham is a village with approximately 1700 inhabitants, located just nine miles from the economic prosperity of Cambridge. There is a strong local community. However, with an increase in property prices the local population feel “priced out”.
Two recent site developments have been built against huge resistance from locals who see no benefit for the community. So in 2012 the Parish Council led the formation of a Community Land Trust (CLT) – an industrial provident society. The CLT’s primary objective is to provide opportunities for people who live and work within the community.
The CLT searched for land, and selected a site outside the building envelope to the west of the village. This site relates well to the settlement and is owned by a Cambridge College: however, lying outside the development envelope and with the likelihood of substantial local opposition, the site under normal developing circumstances was unlikely to be considered.
In 2013, the CLT undertook an extensive consultation exercise, which was supported by a substantial grant from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. Specialist consultants reached out to every sector of the community, from school children to the retired. The team established what people valued about the village and what form they would like to see development take.
Support grew quickly for the project, with only a few residents living adjacent to the proposed site raising concerns. As joint applicants with the developer and college, the CLT was actively involved in developing and agreeing the design brief. Through group and one-to-one meetings with the concerned residents, a compromise was reached by providing a substantial bridleway and open space between existing properties and the new development.
A total of 50 houses are planned, with fifteen to be held by the CLT for affordable rent and shared-ownership. In addition to the 15 plots, the Trust will receive land for a doctors’ surgery, some work units, a cemetery extension, and considerable open space as a village green in the centre of the development. The Trust will also receive, in cash, 40 per cent of the uplift in value of the 35 private plots. The receipt of free building plots and substantial cash uplift funding model will allow the CLT to provide genuinely affordable rents and shared-ownership opportunities for hard-working local people.
The design of the scheme and the individual homes is revolutionary, in that as the streets are laid out in the form of the existing village with a wide range of individually designed homes, many of which are purposefully designed to be extended. The CLT-owned homes are spread throughout the development, of generous proportions, and are indistinguishable from the private homes.
As a result of these rents being affordable, breathing space has been provided for young local people to save for a deposit, which opens up the possibility of eventually owning their own home within the community in which they have been raised.
CLTs provide a pathway to home ownership for many hard working local people who form the backbone of rural communities, often working in roles that allow these communities to thrive. A number of Conservative Minister’s have supported CLTs. Grant Shapps has been supportive; Nick Boles, when Planning Minister, spoke at the launch of the National CLT Network. However, if CLTs are to achieve their true potential, more political support is needed.
For me, there are four key reasons why, as Conservatives, we should support CLTs, both locally and nationally. They deliver community-led affordable housing for working families that are struggling to continue living within the rural communities where they work and have been raised. Moreover, because they are community-led, and lead to results that clearly benefit the settled community as well as fulfilling an unmet housing need, CLT housing schemes are likely to win the support of the whole community in a way that the ordinary development applications on land outside development envelopes would not.
Finally, CLTs offer the potential for the very real tension between the need to provide housing and cater for new communities to be balanced with the responsibility to respect local democracy and the needs of existing communities. Stretham is a rural community that has historically been very anti development, as demonstrated by the recent Mereham campaign.
How refreshing that the CLT application passed with the overwhelming support of the local community. So much so, that many are now calling for a phase two to provide an extra 20 homes. Providing housing for local people and respecting local democracy need not be mutually exclusive.