Changes to the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 prompted Mark Bridgeman to look into an opportunity for a housing development in the Northumberland village of Embleton, which, over the last 100 years, has undergone a number of expansions. At the time it was assessed as a sustainable village. However, to maintain this status, it had to grow to accommodate more homeowners and affordable units. Mark, with the help of a planning consultancy, started out by submitting an initial plan with a view to expanding the northern part of the village, with outline permission granted in 2014. From the outset, Mark, along with planning consultants Fairhurst, engaged with both the local parish council and the local community to look constructively at ways to accommodate and address their concerns.
“It is worthwhile investing time in identifying the best-fit partner to work with before making any financial investment"
Cussins, a house builder based in Alnwick, was selected over a large national developer. “Bringing on board a local builder, with a solid track record and excellent reputation, was the cornerstone in building a strong partnership from the outset,” says Mark. “In Cussins, I identified an excellent partner, as our respective interests were aligned by a joint commitment to manage costs and to ultimately drive sales.” In December 2017, the last of 39 homes, of which six are affordable, were built on this site, while all units were sold from plan before the last house was complete. The success of this development can be traced to partnering with local professionals and contractors. Mark and Cussins had built up a mutual understanding of what each party would contribute from the start as part of this joint venture. While Mark provided the land with planning permission, Cussins brought its development experience to the project, as well as its local reputation regarding the marketing and selling of built units. “We instituted monthly management meetings and reporting. While I did not get involved in day-to-day project management, I was keen to be involved in decisions such as the building materials, size and design of the houses, and their connectivity,” says Mark.
“Success for me will be seeing the local village thrive. Of course, any small-scale development will have a commercial element to it, but it should always be balanced with a community-minded vision.” Dealing with councils, especially on planning and related issues, can be challenging. Northumberland County Council wanted to take all the Section 106 affordable housing allocation as an offsite payment, but Mark insisted on keeping as much on site as possible to help enhance the sustainability of Embleton. He wanted to promote home ownership through discount houses for sale as part of the affordable housing allocation, leveraging the Government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, rather than just affordable rental homes. The affordable houses were sold at a 30% discount to the market value to local people who met the council’s criteria. The 30% discount will be maintained in perpetuity. A total of £32,000 of the Section 106 funds were also used to invest in a local nature reserve and public amenities in the village.
The joint venture encountered challenges in terms of both the cost and provision of the development’s infrastructure with regard to roads and utilities. Mark says: “Never underestimate the cost of establishing infrastructure. This included installing an electricity sub-station on site, a road junction and a complex drainage system. For us, this amounted to roughly 40% of the total cost of developing the site. “Dealing with utility companies can also be cumbersome, as you have to deal with monopolies that don’t always appreciate the risks vested in small developers and are not good at working to a set timeline, whether that is BT Openreach or the electricity or water utilities,” explains Mark. Sometimes challenges can be turned into positive outcomes. Connectivity in rural communities is a big issue and can be a serious impediment to growth. While there was fibre to the village’s telephone exchange, the speeds to properties on the last leg of copper wire were not great. Through a meeting with the chief executive of Openreach, Mark discovered that the company was due to reduce its fibre to the property threshold from 200 new build houses to 30. The development therefore qualified and Mark managed to cancel the initial legacy copper phone lines that had been ordered and get Openreach to upgrade the new site to full fibre. This means that the houses on the site now benefit from fibre to the premises (FTTP), which can generate superfast broadband speeds of up to 300Mbps, which is better than in most city centres and future proofs them for years to come. Mark part-funded the development through a loan against his farm business, as opposed to a traditional building loan, which would have been more costly. He says: “We part-funded the project as we went along, and all properties were sold off plan, which enabled us to reduce the debt on the project. We also speeded up the building process by using modern timber frames instead of block work.” The second stage of development at Creighton Place, which has recently received approval, will entail a further 16 houses, four of which will be affordable, which is more than the 15% affordable housing requirement set by Northumberland County Council on such developments. It was Mark’s decision to build more affordable houses, arguing that it is essential to accommodate local people in the area.
“After existing residents expressed concern about the impact of this second development on the landscape, we have included in our plans a woodland buffer between first and second stages,” Mark says. “We will also soften the village edge by planting trees and shrubs in the field bordering the development.” In addition, none of the proposed houses will be more than one and a half storeys high to minimise their visual impact. Furthermore, they will only be sold to permanent residents in order to overcome the understandable concern that houses are bought as second homes or holiday lets on the Northumberland coast. Further down the line, Mark is investigating the building of seven or eight houses to rent, for the estate to retain, on an infill site in the village of Christon Bank. The goal would be to accommodate local workers, not to sell them or rent them as second homes.
“Success for me will be seeing the local village thrive"
Mark's Top Tips
- Don’t be afraid to get directly involved yourself. You can better influence the outcome and share in the success. However, clearly this comes with more risks than just selling to a developer
- Source local and experienced contractors and professionals – build solid, mutually beneficial relationships with them
- Engage with local stakeholders, including the parish council and local community, to understand and mitigate concerns
- Consider part-funding your project as you go