Looking at Melton Hill – or as Woodbridge residents have taken to calling it, the Cheese Wedges – it is hard for the outside viewer to disentangle the intentions of the developer, what with their sudden last-minute appeal on the second application AND this simultaneous third application.
Firstly, I think it is perfectly reasonable that developer’s intentions be viewed with suspicion. Their first application promised 32/33 ‘affordable’ units and was withdrawn a year ago to be replaced with a further application on the spurious grounds that Active Urban ‘had become aware of the ability to seek to claim Vacant Building Credit’. This, they claimed, would ‘legitimately reduce the level of affordable housing’ to 11 units because ‘AUWL have concerns about the scheme’s viability’ in ’this brownfield site.’
This is pretty cynical, bearing in mind that Melton Hill was vacated for this development. It was working offices up till that moment.
Active Urban now say the site is too expensive – but this seems pretty par for the development course doesn’t it? It is a far from unusual justification of developers when they do not wish to build affordable housing.
The issue is therefore surely not whether Suffolk Coastal might have been too greedy in asking the price they did for the site – after all, Active Urban didn’t HAVE to offer for it – but that Suffolk Coastal made such a curious choice in seeking to monetise a publicly owned site for what seems such relatively small short-term gain. A real case of pawning the family silver to pay for the housekeeping, instead of investing it in long-term benefits for the people who owned it – us.
As I have suggested before, making the site a Community Land Trust, providing housing at social rent – and maybe some housing that was shared-ownership, though never sold – would have been a wonderful and useful legacy for a District Council that had failed so dismally to provide the housing that local residents so clearly need. (See several blog pieces I have written to this effect over the last couple of years).
Some are maintaining that the third application has restored the status quo in terms of affordable housing? Not quite. The unit numbers may be the same but there are now 12.5% fewer bedrooms for affordable housing than there were on the first application. What is now on offer is a mere 8 x 1 bedroom flats for social rent and 24 flats (1 and 2 bedrooms) for intermediate housing – which is a much vaguer concept. The number, type, size and tenure are not in accordance with the Local Plan.
One cannot help but note that the Growth and Infrastructure Act, introduced in 2013 to reduce the red tape that current governments are too willing to claim hampers growth, allows developers to renegotiate ‘economically unviable’ section 106 agreements on stalled housing developments. This of course makes it advantageous for the developer to feel stalled. It is recognised that this Act has a particular impact on affordable housing provision.
Another concern I have is the for-profit element in the affordable housing. The stated provider is Sage Housing – a for-profit organisation, majority-owned by the US real estate giant Blackstone. (You can find articles in the FT about these funds which aim to return 8% to investors at the expense of those who are in need of affordable homes). Sage finances section106 agreements but then contracts out the day to day running of the affordable units. Their shared ownership plans seem to require a minimum 40% share to be acquired at market value (and sometimes 75%) which seems a far cry from the affordable needs of local people who will have to rent on top of that amount plus fees plus a management charge for the use of common areas.
We need to question whether Active Urban are behaving as if they are an appropriate developer for this site. I think the new East Suffolk council should look closely at the mess and confusion they have inherited, and consider again what might be the best way forward for the people of this area