How do you solve a problem like the lack of affordable housing in Northampton?
Well, the town’s borough council might hold the answer.
Recent news of failed major development projects (Vulcan Works, Greyfriars) upset many residents. But the council could redeem itself should it deliver on a more pertinent and pressing promise, to deliver 1,000 new homes over the course of the next decade.
To achieve that - in a climate of financial uncertainty and stability, at county, borough and national levels of government - one of the Guildhall’s arms-length companies looks set to restructure and shoulder the responsibility of construction.
Northampton Borough Council’s cabinet member for housing, Stephen Hibbert said as much in his report to fellow cabinet councillor’s at a meeting last month.
In it, Councillor Hibbert wrote: “I am very pleased to report that officers from the council and Northampton Partnership Homes are close to recommending a delivery model that will enable at least 100 new council homes to be built every year for the next 10 years.”
In its current role, NPH simply manages the council’s housing stock, but Councillor Hibbert’s report suggests it may start laying bricks sooner rather than later.
The significance of this is that it may well offer a solution to the shortage of affordable housing in the town at a time of increased demand.
Northampton Partnership Homes first emerged as a candidate to build new council houses in the wake of the announcement that the long-awaited Greyfriars project was going “back to the drawing board”.
Those were the words of Northampton Borough Council leader Jonathan Nunn, who hinted at NPH’s involvement in a future proposal for Greyfriars, because of the council’s insistence that it includes new homes, which developers had deemed unprofitable.
Liberal Democrat borough councillor Brian Markham also supports the idea that NPH could take on responsibility as a developer.
He spoke out in late November and called for NPH to become a local housing company, which would see it transformed into a private company with shares, which would be held by Northampton Borough Council.
“They [NPH] had looked into setting themselves up as a local housing company which would enable them to borrow money and get money from Northampton Borough Council to build more homes,” said Councillor Markham.
“They could be an active developer and could use Government money to build more affordable housing in the town, which everyone says we need.
“But it’s taken a long time for the administration to do it.”
If it came to pass, Councillor Markham’s idea would see sites owned by the council transferred to NPH. Projects could, therefore, be funded through borrowing (the current debt cap stands at £217m), and money raised from lettings or sales of the new homes would be recycled, in a rolling development programme.
However, an agreement on the Greyfriars project seems a long way off yet, so what is the council doing in the coming months to help with the housing issue?
Going back to Councillor Hibbert’s report, it mentions extra homes created through conversions and reconfigurations of existing buildings.
Eleonore House, in Eastfield, Dover Court in St James and Woodstock, off Billing Road; and ongoing construction at Lakeview House, Eastfield (45 single-bedroom properties), and in Spring Boroughs, Little Cross Street (nine flats and nine maisonettes), Althorp Street (two large family homes) and Lower Bath Street (14 family homes).
Planning consent has been granted for the demolition of 10 unfit, non-traditional homes at Toms Close in Collingtree which will be replaced with 21 family homes.
Work also continues to implement a strategy for replacing redundant lock-ups with new family homes.
And the fruits of a Guildhall appeal for spare parcels of private land suitable for new houses are due to be revealed this month. When the initial consultation was launched, about 70 bits of land were put forward, from the car park at Nationwide’s headquarters to gardens.
These ongoing projects and the promise to build 1,000 homes may offer hope to those on the housing list and should alleviate both the demand for, and the shortage of, council homes.
But is the promise based on the status quo remaining the same? We often hear of Northampton being touted as an economic hub and a great place for start-ups thanks to, for example, projects to implement high-speed broadband in the area.
Furthermore, the town’s location in the commuter belt may well attract those unable to afford or unwilling to match the high rental prices in London.
If the demand for accommodation grows in Northampton, private sector rent costs would go up as landlords seek to make the most of the situation. This could force more tenants onto the housing list, further increasing demand for council homes, although this may be eased if the Guildhall Residential Lettings project brings the expected benefits.
It is clear that the borough council is unwilling to take financial “risks” when it comes to future development projects - partly as an understandable reaction to the loss of the Sixfields Stadium loan cash - meaning cost-cutting is a priority. Nevertheless, it seems clear housing is one of its priorities.
The Guildhall’s promise to build 1,000 homes in the next decade offers a solution and a degree of hope. But it’s a sign of the times that the borough has to morph its own council houses managers into builders to achieve it.