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Council agrees 78 ‘build to rent’ homes its housing team say are not needed

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A council agreed to allow a developer to go ahead with a large scale ‘build to rent’ housing estate despite its own housing team advising its not needed.

East Cambridgeshire District Council planning committee agreed to allow Godwin Developments to build 78 homes on the former Westmill Foods site at Angel Drove.

All the homes will be ‘build to rent’ and the council has accepted a viability study which shows it could not ahead if the developers were forced to agree to any affordable housing for the site.

East Cambridgeshire District Council planning committee agreed to allow Godwin Developments to build 78 homes on the former Westmill Foods site at Angel Drove.

The development, which also includes a commercial block of offices, originally was intended for 116 homes.

However, concerns over highway safety, flooding/drainage, and landscaping issues, saw the scheme reduced to 78 homes.

The committee accepted its planning officers recommendation that the scheme would not provide any affordable housing due to the unviability of the proposal.

Godwin submitted a Financial Viability Appraisal (FVA) and planners said this has been independently assessed by the council’s consultant.

The council’s own housing team got involved at an early stage – in April 2021 – when 116 homes were first proposed.

At that stage the housing team expected that the council’s own Local Plan of 2015 would be adhered to and would deliver a nearly a third of the homes as affordable.

And a housing team officer had strong reservations about the ‘build to rent’ proposition.

“We have highlighted our concerns as to whether Ely has a need for such a large-scale Built to Rent scheme, owned and managed by one single company,” it reported.

“The Built to Rent model is a fairly new product and I currently don’t feel that there is enough information within the planning application to determine how the product will work.”

The housing official who wrote the early report questioned whether the model “will only be available for certain household groups and how the affordable private rent will be managed and allocated.

East Cambridgeshire District Council planning committee agreed to allow Godwin Developments to build 78 homes on the former Westmill Foods site at Angel Drove.

“The draft Housing Needs Study for Cambridgeshire and West Suffolk has also indicated that there is no requirement in East Cambridgeshire for the council to allocate sites for Build to Rent.”

The official’s response added: “The evidence shows that the private rented market is an increasing important way for households to access accommodation.

“However, our main concern is over the scale in which the Build to Rent development is proposed.

“It is our recommendation that the development should consider a greater balance of tenures, including market housing and affordable housing, alongside a small scale Built to Rent product.”

That proposal was later swept away, and three weeks before the planning committee met on November 30, it updated its assessment.

“The strategic housing team note that there is no planned delivery of affordable homes on this site and that a viability assessment has been submitted to support this,” it reported.

“In light of this we would request that suitable clawback mechanisms be included within the Section 106 agreement to recoup the value of the affordable housing provision if the private rent homes are converted to another tenure or open market sale”

The team also called for viability review mechanisms to secure the provision of affordable housing should the viability position change “as also recommended in the viability assessment”.

The planning committee agreed with their officers who took account of this aspect.

The committee was told: “A number of mechanisms are proposed and would be the subject of an s106 Agreement to ensure that a review is carried out if the scheme is not substantially implemented (e.g.: slab level on 10 plots) within two years.

“A late-stage review at 75% of units being occupied has also been advised by the council’s independent consultant which would reveal the final sales values and build costs.”

East Cambridgeshire District Council planning committee agreed to allow Godwin Developments to build 78 homes on the former Westmill Foods site at Angel Drove. And an office complex such as this

A S106 Agreement will cover contributions for educations, libraries, a viability review, and highways work

Godwin says the homes will be built by Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), a process which focuses on off-site construction techniques through factory assembly as an alternative to traditional building.

“The process ensures quality is maintained in a controlled environment, using computer aided design and manufacturing to provide calculated outputs,” the committee was told.

“This delivery results in minimal construction waste and the control of material supplies and carbon tracking.

“The Angel Drove proposal aims to implement MMC for all 78 dwellings, to produce a contemporary scheme that ensures a level of quality is maintained and sustainable measures are achieved.”

Godwin said the Build-to-Rent (BTR) sector is a rapidly growing part of the wider private rented sector.

A study by Zoopla showed rental demand rising 8% between 2018-2019 but rental supply dropping by 4%, largely due to the reducing buy-to-let market as tax changes making more private landlords exit this market.

It says the demographics of Ely and the wider East Cambridgeshire support the need for ‘build to rent’ and helps drive investor interest and demand in this part of the country.

Godwin says nearly 30 per cent of the population of East Cambridgeshire (total of c. 85,500) is aged between 25-44.

“Within the area, this age group consists mainly of couples and families with children, among whom the demand for good quality rental accommodation is consistently high,” it says.

East Cambridgeshire has 12 per cent of its households in private rented accommodation.

“However, there is a notable lack of suitable good quality homes for rent in the area and Ely particularly for those seeking 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom homes,” says Godwin.

“According to the ONS, the number of households in East Cambridgeshire is projected to grow by 7.5% by 2028.

“Around 25% of those households will have 1-3 dependent children.

“The above-mentioned drivers support the provision of much needed family houses for rent in Ely, which will accommodate the growing population and economy.”

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