The city council’s plan to build 600 new homes, so far designed by BDP and Mikhail Riches, aims to combine high quality with increasingly green credentials
The City of York Council’s housebuilding record wasn’t totally non-existent by the time the business case was agreed for it to embark on a 600-new-home programme in 2017. It had completed around 60 homes during the preceding five years, mostly small estate infills. What the go-ahead did was launch an ambition to mass build homes on a scale unseen in the city since the post-war period.
The first 40 homes on the initial site, Lowfield Green, are already occupied. The next wave of residents will move in shortly and the third phase of construction will start soon. The local authority has two schemes ready to start on site, one in planning as well as two projects in the initial design stages. According to head of housing delivery and asset management Michael Jones, the council should be halfway to reaching the target by 2024.
Like many councils, the prompt for the programme was the Cameron government’s lifting of the borrowing cap on housing revenue account receipts in 2012 – which also generated Goldsmith Street for Norwich City Council. However, whereas many authorities have opted to deliver via separate development companies in partnership with private developers and housing associations, York is doing it alone. Its delivery model is entirely based on borrowing off housing revenue account receipts – a method director of housing economy and regeneration Tracey Carter says is simpler to the point where it is perplexing that more councils don’t opt for it. The only drawback was that much of the early work was in assembling a team. It now totals 12 with Jones, one of the recruits, joining from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Travelling around the south-west of York near Lowfield Green, the most advanced scheme, it doesn’t appear the city is short of homes. Tang Hall in the east was the second council estate built in England under Homes for Heroes following the First World War. Elsewhere you will encounter successive housing estates that radiate from the centre forming evidence of changing architectural styles and urban design thinking from the 1930s to 1970s like the dating rings of a tree; yet noticeably lacking housing from the 1980s to present day.
The backdrop is that, by 2017, the council had accumulated several vacant sites that it was considering disposing of. But more widely, the city is facing a housing affordability crisis compounded by an availability crisis. Demand for private sale, affordable and rental homes is outstripping supply, caused by a mix of newcomers, students, houses in multiple occupation, and older people staying in family homes. Key and low-wage workers, essential to York’s retail and hospitality industries, are priced out. Right to Buy has been an additional negative drag, chipping away the once 15,000 social rent homes to 7,500. At the same time, the average earnings to house price ratio in the city is 1:10, a figure more comparable with the south and south-east than elsewhere in the north of England. It has led to high land prices so that by 2017, the council was receiving ever more resistance from developers to meet affordable homes targets on private developments (20 per cent on brownfield, 30 per cent of greenfield), which was also affecting quality.
‘There was an element that we can do it better and raise standards in the city,’ explains Jones on why the council wanted to get involved in housebuilding. ‘In every town and city in the country we see classic cookie-cutter mass housebuilding developments, but we wanted to demonstrate that you can do it differently. You can still do it in a commercially minded way in terms of making it stack up, but you can offer a different product that’s better quality.’
‘And the response of the construction industry to the zero-carbon challenge has been pretty slow out of the blocks,’ adds Carter, ‘so we wanted to prove that it could be technically possible and commercially viable.’
As the project has gained momentum, the deliverables have also become more ambitious. The Lowfield Green development was as much about the council proving to itself that it could build successful schemes that are attractive places to live. All the developments are mixed tenure and Lowfield Green cross-funds 28 social rent and 28 shared ownership homes by developing 84 market sale properties, but didn’t go as far as zero-carbon. The next sites to construct will be at least 40 per cent affordable homes and will be fully zero-carbon in use, meaning annual heating and electricity will be generated by the homes, including for TV, laptops, phone-charging, not just cooker, fridge, freezer. They will also be Passivhaus-certified which will drive down the energy requirements from air-source heat pumps and solar panels. Projects on the drawing board go further still by attempting to bring down embodied carbon using timber construction and recycled newspaper insulation as a more sustainable alternative to block and brick.
In terms of design, York Council has been keen to work with architects that meet its ambitions. The first two schemes, Lowfield Green and Castle Mills in the city centre are designed by BDP’s Sheffield office, appointed via the OJEU process (although it had worked with the council on other projects previously). However, as the local authority’s ambitions grew it went down the procurement framework route, also via OJEU, open to full market for a four-year term. The first stage involved quality-based questions around placemaking and community, the second stage split 70 per cent quality (demonstrated by case studies) and 30 per cent price.
What made the process different from others was that the council had done prior research to improve the procurement process by discovering what the barriers to entry would be, including levels of liability and insurance, to overcome issues that had previously led to it having limited choices – how ‘the nature of the rules often push work towards the big practices’ as Jones puts it. This involved an investigation of payout amounts as part of maximum liability claim levels in England to see if the high levels of cover often required held much meaning.
Fifty offices submitted and they were judged by a panel including Jones and three others from the City of York team. Mikhail Riches emerged as the favourite and was formally procured a week before winning the 2019 Stirling Prize for Goldsmith Street. The panel was attracted by the practice’s ability to deliver density at low scale, which felt contextual to York, its Passivhaus certified homes and its focus on developing communities, health and wellbeing using spaces such as the shared ginnels at Norwich. Karakusevic Carson Architects will be offered excess work with the option of holding mini competitions between the firms for a particular project, although the council hasn’t yet done so. The quantity of work is rather formidable; already Mikhail Riches has delivered two schemes to construction drawings; one is in planning and two others are at design stage, and the current relationship is still to run until 2023.
At a more general level, the council’s learning is feeding into a new design manual. But more significantly, the local authority is due to approve a new local plan later this year that will include building 4,000 new affordable homes over the next 15 years. Its work in designing mixed-tenure, high-quality and increasingly sustainable homes serves as evidence of what can be achieved by other types of developer. Currently the market sale properties are being sold by its own brand, Shape Homes York. Carter admits that it is still finding its way in this area, perhaps having undervalued some homes sold to date (the council's market research showed that prospective buyers expected to pay less for homes developed by a local authority). But it is also still exploring the public appetite for living in zero-carbon homes and whether they are prepared to pay more of the circa 10 per cent additional construction cost of those homes with a view to the long-term energy saving – particularly relevant with today’s spiralling energy costs.
One aspect of which Carter seems particularly proud, however, is that this 600-home building programme is bringing certainty to the local construction market and encouraging upskilling in sustainable construction that otherwise would be slower, especially during the post-pandemic home extensions boom. It has created incentive, and made meeting the carbon challenge more likely and inclusive.
Lowfield Green in the south-west of the city replaces a former school with 165 homes, 140 of which are being developed by the council alongside six self-built houses and a 19-home co‑housing scheme. It circles around a new 0.4ha green and includes apartments for the over-55s and bungalows, which have been attractive for downsizers. It was designed by BDP and includes many house types. Its feel is extremely generous with lots of volumetric and textural variety, which has been a lesson for subsequent schemes – that they should be simpler and more compactly masterplanned.
Mikhail Riches’ first project for City of York Council, which is in planning, will create 85 new homes on a former MOD site, south-east of the city centre. It will involve demolishing several rather charming existing military housing buildings (because the architect couldn’t make the site work with them) but retain what is called the ‘married quarters’ which will have community and commercial units at ground level. Between the rows of terraced houses there will be spacious ginnels replicating those at the practice's Goldsmith Street housing. The terraces will be bookended by multigenerational homes with annexes for grown-up children or grandparents.