© 2017 The Harpenden Society

Housey Housey

Spring 2015 Newsletter

The Editor's enthusiasm in the last issue for a proposed national programme of modern 'garden cities' twinned with existing towns prompted a few responses, some of them not terribly complimentary, although one correspondent was sufficiently delighted as to dispatch immediately a copy of the article to our local MP. Meanwhile, the battle to save the sustainability of the town from over-building continues.

One point not perhaps emphasised enough is a certain innocence among the powers-that-be about the playing of the housing game. Of the 436 dwellings that will, on average, be built each year in the St Albans District Council area, 57 or 13%, will be available for net inward migration, that is for the 142 people who will arrive outnumbering those who leave. The rest are to cater for 'natural growth', that is the normal rise in population within the district. These figures have been obtained directly from the SADC Planning and Control office and we are grateful for its help.  

Two points. First, paragraph 2.27 of the Independent Assessment of Housing Needs and Strategic Housing Market Assessment, the basis for the Council's calculations, suggests, from council tax records, that those 'recorded as 'within' is massively outweighed by those recorded as 'outside' to an average ratio of 10:1...and strongly suggest that 'new-build schemes are driving in-migration to the area rather than meeting the needs of local residents'. That underlining was used by the author of the report, who goes on to say that 'this conclusion is supported by the views of estate agents', who report that most of these are from the London area.  That seems to laugh in the face of the tiny 13% expected over the next twenty years.

Second, how do the St Albans Council propose to police this implied rationing system of 83% of new dwellings for 'within' natural growth' and 13% for 'outside' net migration? As the Harpenden Society News has argued hitherto, the housing needs assessment confuses cause and effect; if you build 436 houses people will come and buy them; if you don't, they will go elsewhere – and the idea that in a free-for-all housing market the authorities are able to dictate otherwise is pie in the sky. This particular game of 'housey housey' is like boxing before the application of the Queensberry Rules in 1867.

Will the provision of affordable housing, about which saintly murmurs are frequently vouchsafed, have much effect? Unlikely. In the year to April 2015 only 42,000 'affordable' homes will have been built in the UK, the lowest for some time. Indeed, reports claim that by 2018 there will be a million fewer such dwellings than in 1980. One reason for this is a somewhat opaque aspect of the new planning regulation known as the 'financial viability test'. One description says 'house-builders, claiming commercial confidentiality...obscure the financial modelling' in order to suggest the scheme would be unworkable if the required affordable housing quota was fulfilled. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who have done much analysis of the situation, argue that the top ten builders, who control enough land to build 480,000 homes, will have made a profit of £2.1bn in 2014, 34% more than in 2013 and a remarkable recovery from the critical years of the financial crash. However, the signs of an easement in the direction of the kind of housing that would enable the younger generation and lower paid workers to buy into the   high-rolling housing market remain very limited. Recent alterations in the regulations suggest that the avoidance of building affordable housing may have been further eased.

The evidence suggests that the estate agents are right. Build houses and people from the London area will be able to pay high prices to buy them.

James Marshall House Development - Projections and objections

At the pre Christmas public meeting on 11 December 2014, after the mulled wine and hot mince pies had been voraciously enjoyed, we had the chance to hear about and discuss the plans for James Marshall House. Architect Tim Riley, who gave  the presentation has provided a summary of the 'Pegasus' project.

The Proposal

The proposals are for a retirement living development consisting of 38 apartments, communal & care facilities, a Seniors Club and a public café on the site of the former James Marshall House. Currently it is a back-land site which houses a derelict building that has been empty for 14 years and is attracting antisocial behaviour.

The proposals consist of three buildings in a landscape setting in response to the mature landscape Rothamsted Park. The form of the buildings is inspired by the rich character of the Arts & Crafts buildings along Leyton Road and by bringing the Park and Leyton Road together we can enhance both conditions.

By integrating the facilities as much as possible with the Harpenden Seniors Club  the development can encourage social interaction with the wider community. To this end the Seniors Club is located adjacent to the park where we can positively transform an otherwise dark part of the park with much needed community facilities.

The Controversy

These proposals have excited much attention and indeed controversy. The Harpenden Society's position has been made quite clear in several public statements by our chairman, Chris Marsden. The gist of this is as follows:    

The Harpenden Society Committee in good faith takes a view on development issues in the Town, both positive and negative. In this case the committee had received a presentation in the Summer on preliminary plans for the Pegasus development, which included our much sought after provision for a cafe beside the Park, including toilet and community facilities. We liked in general terms what we saw. We also were informed that the Harpenden Seniors Club, the main users of the old building, were satisfied with the new community facilities being proposed. Indeed they welcomed the proposed wider community involvement.   Some months later we were informed that Pegasus were ready to go public with a more detailed plan and we felt that it would make an excellent subject for our December public meeting. We had intended that this presentation would be accompanied by one detailing the Council’s plans for other developments in Rothamsted Park concerning, among other things, the Children’s playground, but unfortunately this was cancelled at the last minute. The Pegasus presentation was duly made and followed by a lively question session.

The Society noted the objections, particularly on grounds of the height of the building, which we believe was the main reason the Council subsequently rejected the proposal. At the end of the public meeting in a show of hands regarding the height of the building 40 people were in favour and 17 against. Nevertheless we accept the Council’s decision and now await a revised proposal.

With regard to the alleged conflict of interest caused by the coincidence of the lead architect for Pegasus, Tim Riley, also being on our committee, we were aware of how this might be perceived but feel we acted honourably. Our support for the initial plan and agreement to hold a public meeting on the issue was taken by the committee without our architect member taking part in the decision. We were delighted when he originally joined the committee in November 2011 as part of our initiative to attract younger members onto our committee. His association with Pegasus Life began in July 2013. He was the inspiration behind our original ‘cafe in the park’ campaign in 2012, the demand for which emerged strongly from our meetings with young parents. He is and remains a valued member of our committee and has acted with the utmost discretion in balancing his committee membership with his professional role.