Note: this article was first written in April 2023. Sadly, it’s been necessary to update it to cover the lack of progress. It will continue to be updated until the building work actually starts.
Update 1 December 2023
It seems that original headline of this article written in April 2023 – “Chestnut Walk in Hungerford: work finally set to start in late 2023” – was a tad optimistic.
Not having managed to get any answers from WBC as to when the work would start (“late 2023” now being already upon us), on 30 November I applied myself to Sovereign, the other partner in the joint venture that was set up some years ago to build these much-needed homes. The reply I received was very prompt, though that’s more than can be said for the new schedule.
“Getting development right takes time,” said Jo Smith, Senior Development Manager at SNG, “and we want to be sure we are building the best place and the best homes we can for Hungerford. We have been engaging with the council and the S106 has finally been agreed. We have signed this and we are waiting for the countersignature from West Berkshire Council so that the planning consent can be issued.
“We are now preparing to bring on board a construction partner that can deliver homes to the high standards we set ourselves under our Homes and Place standard.We are forecasting to start on site in September 2024.”
I have asked a number of questions arising from this surprising and disappointing message and will bring you the responses when I have them.
Hungerford Mayor Helen Simpson, writing in her monthly report for the meeting of Hungerford Town Council on 4 December 2023, said that “I think its utterly disgraceful that the partnership project for Chestnut Walk between Sovereign Housing and WBC has been delayed for another year. This project was started over six years ago. HTC was instrumental in determining environmental changes to the plans ensuring a lower cost of living for the new tenants. The S106 has finally been agreed. HOW can it take six years to build a few homes on a derelict site?”
Other reactions can be seen at the foot of this post: please use the “leave a comment” box below if you would like to add one of your own.
Regular readers of Penny Post will be aware that for the last couple of years we have been reporting on the progress – or, more often, the seeming lack of it – on the re-development of the former care home at Chestnut Walk in Hungerford which closed in 2017.
One of the unusual things about this project is that the principle of it attracted no opposition at all: indeed, there was a good deal of active support. Most planning applications of any size are met with a wave of opposition. This makes the subsequent delays even more inexcusable.
It’s also worth stressing that, although Sovereign’s developments sometimes include homes for sale to help fund the costs, this one will be all social housing.
A joint venture between West Berkshire Council and Sovereign Housing was set up in early 2019 – nearly four years ago – with the aim of re-developing this site, and Phoenix Court in Newbury. In September 2021, plans were finally submitted: these were, however, roundly criticised by both Hungerford Town Council and the then ward members for lacking ambition with regards to their sustainable features, particularly in the light off the climate emergency which WBC had declared.
Over the following 18 months, discussions on resolving this issue dragged on. In addition, two factors (which in many ways worked against each other) emerged as well.
The first was that the rise in energy prices showed just how important it was to ensure that the tenants of these homes, many of whom would be on low incomes, should have heating provided by something other than oil or gas. The second was that inflation will now make these homes far more expensive to build than would have been the case in 2017. This in turn caused a problem for WBC, which is obliged to get the best value for any assets it disposes of (in this case, from the land which would be sold to joint venture).
In 2022, WBC recognised that it might get no money at all from this scheme. This in in many ways encouraging as it recognises that the term “value” can be defined in ways other than cash. The main value here will be to the community, particularly the tenants.
Since then Hungerford Town Council, the ward members, Penny Post and others have pressed for confirmation of (a) what sustainable features the dwellings will have and (b) when work will start (and finish). A statement from Sovereign sent to Penny Post on 4 April 2023 goes a good way to answering both these questions. We’re happy to quote it in full:
“Sovereign Housing Association has reconfirmed its intention to redevelop a care home on Chestnut Walk in Hungerford in partnership with West Berkshire Council. While there have been delays to the Section 106 agreement for the site, the joint venture between West Berkshire Council and Sovereign is committed to redeveloping the site to provide new environmentally friendly homes.
“The specification at Chestnut Walk will ensure that the homes will produce 75% less carbon emissions and more environmentally friendly homes than currently being built and that are being delivered under 2013 building regulations. This is the equivalent carbon reduction to that proposed in the Future Homes Standard (the building regulations being introduced in 2025). We will achieve this by improved insulation, heating and hot water powered by air-source heat-pumps, and PV panels. This specification ensures that the homes will have a lower demand for energy and are more cost efficient for residents to live in.
“Sovereign hopes to start on site in the autumn [of 2023]. The date is subject to finalising the S106 agreement, a formal tender process and acquisition of the land by the joint venture. Speaking about the plans for Chestnut Walk, a spokesperson for Sovereign said that “we’re really excited about the potential of this site. Our sector-leading Homes and Place Standard means that every new home we build will be built to the highest environmental standards. Our Corporate Plan has committed that by 2026 all our existing homes will have a clear pathway to net zero and all new homes will be net zero ready.”
(As mentioned in the 1 December 2024 update paragraph above, this promise about the start date has not been met. It thus seems possible that the other ones about the sustainable features may not be either. We have asked the question.)
The term “net zero ready” was unfamiliar to me so I asked the question. A spokesperson for Sovereign told me that this means that “a dwelling will account for around 75% of its operational carbon emissions such as lighting, heating, hot water. The remaining 25% comes from and is accounted for by the decarbonisation of the National Grid. It’s also defined in the government’s Future Homes Standard.” I also wondered when the completion date would be and was told this was expected to be 12 months from when work starts, ie late 2024.
I also asked, having been prompted by Hungerford Town Councillor John Downe, what the Predicted Energy Assessment (PEA) of the homes will be (PEAs are estimates of what the Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) will be for properties that have yet to be built). Sovereign told me that they would get back with an answer in the next few days.
(An EPC of grade B – with a score of between 81 and 91 – is apparently about par for current developments: better than typically happened before but poor compared to what is now possible. All new-builds should really aspire to A, ie a score of 92+.)
Reaction at the time
“As Portfolio Holder for Housing for the last two years I am absolutely delighted that this scheme is finally getting off the ground,” Councillor Howard Woollaston told Penny Post on 4 April. “This is one of the first joint-venture schemes between Sovereign and WBC and we have both learnt a lot about how to speed things up for future ones.
“The Council’s acceptance of minimal or possibly zero site value is a clear endorsement of the climate emergency and the need to provide affordable housing to the very best environmental standards. These reduce final-value and increase building costs respectively – but we can hardly demand these standards from developers if we don’t follow them ourselves.”
I also spoke to one of Hungerford’s WBC ward members, James Cole, who has advocated more ambitious sustainable features even since the application was first lodged. “The statement from Sovereign appears to be in line with the report I gave to Hungerford Town Council on Monday 6 February 2023,” he told me.
“While the wording of the statement is still at the level of “hopes to start on site” instead of “will start on site” and it is disappointing that WBC’s and Sovereign’s lawyers have apparently still not sorted out the legal details, it is good to see that the specification has not changed, and that both parties intend to do a proper job for Hungerford.”
This may yet happen: though, as of December 2023, no visible progress has been made on the project in the last nine months. Given that the site has been free for six years, that is owned by WBC, that one of the country’s largest social-home providers is in partnership with the council to build and manage it, that the resulting homes are badly this needed and that the project commands wide local support, the delay is as inexplicable as it is pathetic.
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