Only six affordable homes were built in Exeter last year

Only six affordable homes were provided in Exeter last year, a public inquiry has heard today. According to the Exeter City Council’s (ECC) housing register in September, there were 2,727 people in registered housing need in Exeter.

“Not financially viable” – usual old story, not much trickle down from profits except into pockets. – Owl

Anita Merritt www.devonlive.com 

To help boost its delivery of affordable housing in the city, the council is looking to gain contributions from developers who wish to build housing in Exeter. It is currently seeking £4.3m from Churchill Retirement Living, who have submitted a planning application to build 84 retirement apartments on the site of the former Royal Academy for Deaf Education campus on Topsham Road.

Construction work has already begun on the land to build 146 new homes. The plans also include a nursery and a 68-bed care home.

In December 2021, Churchill submitted its plans to the council and despite being recommended for approval at a planning committee meeting in April, councillors voted to defer the plan for further discussions due to uncertainty surrounding affordable housing provision and vast opposition against using Weirfield Road as an access road.

Churchill insists the affordable off-site housing contribution being demanded by ECC is not financially viable and the proposed scheme already makes a ‘significant contribution to housing and specialist housing need in a sustainable location’. A four-day public inquiry has begun today following a failure by Exeter City Council to reach a decision on the application within a designated period of time.

Sasha White, representing Churchill, told the inquiry the proposal complies with policies on meeting specialist housing needs and the use of land in urban areas. He argued that the scheme can only provide up to £862,253 for affordable housing payable through the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), a planning charge to help deliver infrastructure to support the development of a local authority’s area.

Mr White said in his opening statement: “The local planning authority’s (LPA) case utterly overestimates the monies consequently that will be available if the development is implemented.”

He continued: “Not one authority has sought the vast amount that the LPA say is available here. They are seeking £4.3m. It is striking that in the past three years of considering retirement developments where viability was a factor there are 33 Churchill schemes. There is not one example where the full policy compliant payment has been sought by any LPA.

“Exeter are unique in this regard. It is also noteworthy that irrespective of location, scale of development and local context not one has the agreed sum exceeded £608,000. That needs to be contrasted here where the LPA seek incredibly £4.3m.

“That figure is far far too high and again can be corroborated by the bizarre outcome that the actual off-site provision amounts to an equivalent of 54 per cent of the total number of units to be provided well in excess of the policy of 35 per cent. Additionally, the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on which the calculation emerges is significantly out of date having not been reviewed or updated in the past nine years.

“Overall, the LPA’s viability evidence overstates the Gross Development Value (GDV) for the appeal scheme and unjustifiably reduces build costs. The appellant’s position is far more reliable, is properly evidenced, and should be preferred.”

The site plan

The site plan

Arguing that the ‘much-needed, sustainable development’ should be granted approval, Mr White said: “Permission can only be refused where the adverse impacts of development significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits… The benefits of the scheme should be given substantial weight. In no way are these substantial benefits significantly and demonstrably outweighed by impacts.”

Timothy Leader, representing Exeter City Council, said: “There is nothing wrong with this scheme except the appellant is not delivering affordable housing they can afford which is what this city needs. It makes the scheme unsustainable.”

He compared the scheme to being like a three-legged stool with ‘one leg missing’ which would make it fall over. Mr Leader claimed the site was purchased for £4m, but since lodging an appeal the benchmark land value given by Churchill is £1.74m. Regarding contributions ECC has received from other developers, he argued some were ‘significant’ such as land at Pinhoe Road.

Mr Leader said: “The council’s case is straightforward. Its assessment of the appellant’s scheme is that the difference between the gross value of the development for which permission is sought, less the cost of the development leaves headroom for a policy compliant financial affordable housing contribution of £4,382,876.”

The hearing is being conducted by inspector John Wilde, a chartered civil engineer who has been appointed by the Secretary of State. The location of the public hearing has moved from Exeter Corn Exchange to the Civic Centre in Paris Street to provide a bigger space for participants to meet.

A decision is expected to be issued by the planning inspectorate before November 25, 2022. When planning permission for the site of the former Royal Academy for Deaf Education campus on Topsham Road was first granted, a 61-bed assisted living complex was also in the original permission.

The south elevation of the proposed retirement homes

The south elevation of the proposed retirement homes

The chair of Churchill is said to have confirmed the company will implement that proposal if the appeal fails. The original permission also states that access via Weirfield Road was granted and Devon County Council Highways Authority raised no objection to the scheme.

Although local residents have been supportive of the need for housing for the elderly, vast opposition has been raised about the impact of Weirfield Road – a steep, quiet and narrow cul-de-sac is used by many pedestrians and leads down to Exeter Quay – being used as an access road.

Nearly 1,000 people signed a petition that stated the ‘detrimental impacts’ would include unsustainable traffic congestion and reduced safety for pedestrians and vehicles.

Weirfield Road resident Helen, who started the online petition, was given an opportunity to raise her concerns about access onto the proposed development at the planning inquiry. They included the increase in the proposed number of homes on the site being a ‘fresh threat’ to the parking system in Weirfield Road with residents having lost a total of 12 spaces, the impact of increased traffic on residents and pedestrians.

She added Weirfield Road had been dug up five time for utility repairs of power cables since 2018 with works ranging from three days to three weeks, and future works could leave Churchill residents without emergency vehicle access.

Helen said: “It is not practical or safe. A certain level of planning permission was granted four years ago and I believe your hands are tied over this decision, but I hope we will not have lost this battle.”

Exeter city councillor Tess Read, who represents St David’s. also voiced her concerns about access via Weirfield Road. She said: “The residents of this area are not against this redevelopment of a brownfield site or the need for housing provision in Exeter, but it must not come at their expensive when other solutions are available.”

She added she had attempted to contact Churchill to engage in ‘constructive discussions, but had only received a ‘stock email’ response.

Ms Read said: “It shows the developer does not appear to be interested in engaging with the community to serve the whole of the city of Exeter. We are left to feel the city and its residents are unimportant.”

She continued: “Exeter is in dire need of affordable housing for a lot of people… Churchill says it is not in a position to provide or contribute to this vital need.”

The public inquiry continues.

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