How a housing needs survey can transform a community

This summer marks a major milestone for the Right Home Right Place team. It’s the season in which full planning permission was granted for a Community-Led Housing Scheme in the very first parish we surveyed; the village of Prees, near Whitchurch.

With input from Prees Parish Council, the scheme’s architect and the chosen Housing Association, this article explores how the scheme came to life – from our initial survey of the Parish in 2018 to the current build of 27 new homes for the residents who need them most.

A housing need revealed

Shropshire is not unusual in having a growing gap between the average house price and average salary. In many towns and villages across the UK – particularly in rural areas – housing has become less accessible and affordable to many.

As Shropshire becomes an ever-more desirable place to live, local people of all ages have struggled to upsize, downsize or even get onto the property ladder in the parish they live in, work in or were born in. This is a challenge Shropshire Council has been working hard to solve.

One of the biggest problems with providing affordable housing is that there isn’t enough data on where it’s needed, and by whom. Only those who have registered on HomePoint – the Council’s main solution for identifying those who require housing support – are visible as having ‘housing need’.

Shropshire Council’s goal is to ensure residents across Shropshire have access to the right home in their local area.

That’s why Right Home, Right Place was set up. Launched in 2018, Right Home, Right Place is an initiative made up of planning policy officers who work alongside Shropshire Council’s main housing divisions. It exists to survey each parish across the county and identify whether residents have access to the type of housing they need.

This might be more starter homes for first-time buyers, larger properties for families to grow into, bungalows suited to residents with mobility issues, or simply more affordable housing in general.

Prees was the first ever survey conducted by Right Home, Right Place, back in the autumn of 2018. 

“Right from the start, we had fantastic engagement from Prees Parish Council’s Chairman and Parish Clerk,” said Tim Shrosbree, Community-Led Housing Enabler at Right Home, Right Place. “They completely understood the importance of the survey and fully supported the need to uncover whether parishioners have access to the right homes. Without their support, it wouldn’t have been such a smooth process.”

The parish of Prees in Shropshire.

The Prees survey was completed in around eight weeks and ultimately uncovered a hidden housing need in the parish. ‘Hidden’ need means that a housing need was revealed by participants who weren’t listed on the HomePoint Register. 

“The survey immediately turned anecdotal evidence into fact-based evidence. It clearly indicated what the need for certain housing really was in our parish.”

Ray Hirons, Prees Parish Councillor

With accurate data to understand what type of homes were required, it was clear that a new scheme of 27 new units would need to be developed in Prees. These would be a mixture of houses and bungalows, available for Affordable Rent and Shared Ownership, for those with clear local connections to the parish.

During the initial planning process, however, the Parish Council became aware of a potential problem.

“We became slightly concerned that the proposed new builds did not include housing that our residents needed most,” said Ray Hirons, Chairman of Prees Parish Council. “We had looked into schemes that included affordable housing, since this was a priority, but it was also important to us that we added the voice of the local people to the planning process.”

Involving the local community

A Community-Led Scheme is an ideal option for communities who would like to have extensive input into the look and location of any affordable housing built in their parish. 

The Community-Led Housing Scheme at Little Stocks Close in Kinlet, Shropshire (Picture Credit: Shropshire Rural Housing Association)

These schemes are specifically for affordable homes, rather than open-market properties, and usually take place on Exception Sites; plots of land brought forward at a fraction of open market value to be used for affordable homes for local people. 

Some Housing Associations have a standard building model for their properties, but with a Community-Led Scheme, the parish and steering group have far greater input into the types of properties provided. 

A scheme’s chosen Registered Provider – the Housing Association selected by the Parish Council to deliver the homes – takes on all the risk, secures the land and handles the negotiations.

Ultimately, Community-Led Housing Schemes are closely aligned with local parish plans for sustainability, since providing additional and affordable housing will help to secure the future of local shops and services. 

To get an idea of how a Community-Led Scheme might look, the Parish Council formed a steering group alongside representatives from Shropshire Council. The group visited similar developments 

at Bower Farm in St Martins, Little Stocks Close in Kinlet and Callaughtons Ash in Much Wenlock and explored the house types, locations and composition of properties in more detail.

The Passivhaus Community-Led Housing Scheme at Callaughton’s Ash in Much Wenlock (Picture Credit: SJ Roberts)

began interviewing Housing Associations to act as the scheme’s Registered Providers. Wrekin Housing Group, Shropshire Rural and Connexus gave presentations; Wrekin were quickly selected.

“We’d previously worked on the Community-Led housing development in St Martins, which members of the Parish Council had been impressed with when they visited. They also welcomed our approach to working closely together in partnership, which we believe is of huge importance to the success of any housing scheme.”

Steve Swann, Development Manager at Wrekin Housing Group

Midlands-based firm Nicol Thomas was selected as the scheme’s architect, and along with Wrekin Housing Group and residents from across the parish, the firm joined the steering group to help determine the scheme’s location and structure.

“We’ve designed a number of Community-Led schemes but this was our first in Shropshire. We were involved in its development from the outset, and I can honestly say we’ve never worked with a more supportive and enthusiastic Parish Council as Prees; it’s been a real pleasure working with them.”

Richard Fletcher, Director at Nicol Thomas Architects

Choosing a location

The next step was choosing a location for the scheme. Shropshire Council provided a list of potential sites in the area, which the steering group discussed in detail. At this stage, it was important for the group to consider the needs of local residents, particularly those who would be affected.

“At this stage, we began to involve local residents who would potentially be impacted by the build,” said Ray. “Working closely with them to provide information, manage expectations and calm any concerns over the build worked really well.”

The chosen location was a greenfield site which had existing access directly off Whitchurch Road, the main A-road that runs through the village. The access road also served a health centre and a number of bungalows, adjacent to a public amenity space.

Considering ecological factors was an important consideration in the design process.

The greenfield site was an important public and environmental amenity, so Richard Fletcher, the scheme’s architect, was keen to minimise any aesthetic or ecological impact to the site.

“We designed the buildings adjacent to the existing health centre and left the public amenity space in its natural state as much as we could. Even cutting the grass would have reduced the ecological value of the site, so it was very important to minimise impact on wildlife and habitats. The only thing we added was a footpath to act as a pedestrian link through the space.”

Richard Fletcher, Director at Nicol Thomas Architects

Bringing plans to life

When designing the development, Richard was mindful of the need to create homes that would be very much in-keeping with the surrounding area.

“We didn’t just want it to be a mass of housing,” said Richard. “We wanted the scheme to pick up and reflect the character of the area’s built form, as well as its position on the fringe of a greenfield site. It was an interesting combination of urban and rural design.” 

The site has a safe and secure feel, with strong focal points, large front windows and prominent frontages to each property to keep the development flowing consistently.

Designs for new development off Whitchurch Road in Prees.

There were a number of considerations in the design process. As well as ecological factors, the designs needed to meet the needs of the steering group, mitigate any flooding risk and comply with the very high standards set out in new building regulations – particularly in terms of sustainability.

Balancing costs against the need for eco credentials, Richard added solar panels and air source heat pumps to each property – provisions designed to minimise future heating and electricity costs for residents. Richard also designed each home with an ‘A’ Energy Rating for maximum efficiency, and added in a drainage pump on the site to manage flood risk.

With full planning permission being granted by Shropshire Council at the end of July this year, Wrekin Housing Trust – who are also building the properties – are now working alongside the steering group to start work on site.

It’s expected that the scheme will be built by Spring 2022, and the Parish Council are very much looking forward to seeing the positive impact it will have on the local community.

When parish councils understand, support and progress with the need for more affordable local housing, it greatly contributes to the health, wellbeing and economic viability of Shropshire’s many wonderful villages. With the right housing in place, essential services like shops, schools, medical practices, post offices, pubs and other local hubs stay open, and communities continue to thrive.

“This Whitchurch Road scheme will provide accommodation for people who would possibly have had to move from the area, either to get onto the ownership ladder or to stay on it as they get older. The house designs ensure that what is provided is genuinely needed, and the design will perfectly compliment other houses in the area.”

Ray Hirons, Chairman of Prees Parish Council

Steve Swann, Development Manager at Wrekin Housing Group, added: “The Whitchurch Road site will bring a range of benefits to Prees. As well as meeting local housing need, it will support the local community via investment in the development here, with opportunities for local sub-contractors throughout the supply chain.

“There will hopefully be other social value outputs too, particularly in terms of construction training, work placements and working in partnership with local schools and community groups. It’s fantastic to be involved and we’re looking forward to seeing it develop.”