North Prospect: Building a Sustainable Community

In August Transition Bath was invited by social housing provider Curo along with residents from Bath’s Foxhill estate to visit North Prospect in Plymouth to see the impact of a regeneration scheme similar to the one being proposed for Foxhill.

The visit consisted of a formal introduction to the regeneration scheme by representatives of the social landlord, Plymouth Community Homes (PCH), a presentation by a local resident on the history of the community, followed by a tour of the new housing estate and some of the homes.

North Prospect – Background

The North Prospect estate in Plymouth was developed from farmland in the 1920s and 1930s to house combatants returning from the First World North Prospect - old homesWar. The area is largely populated with 3 bed semi-detached properties, with large front and back gardens. The intention of the original development was to promote a utopian paradise of spacious modern homes with space for growing your own food. Housing densities were low for the time at 30 dwellings per hectare and streets were tree lined to promote a ‘rural’ feel. The site is located in a now urban area 2 miles from the centre of Plymouth.

Unfortunately as a result of the poor construction quality of the homes and recent social deprivation a decision was made to demolish 800 homes on the estate and build 1200 new homes in their place. Levels of owner occupancy will rise from 25% to 43%, but the number of socially rented homes will remain the same as a result of increasing densities and an increase in the total number of homes. The existing homes were also considered on average too large for the smaller family units more common today.

This government funded phased process of redevelopment started in 2009. The new site was designed by HTA Architects (the same group that Curo have appointed) and the properties built by Barratts.

Some existing homes in areas of high owner occupancy will remain.

Poor quality construction

The homes were built in the 1920s and 1930s to relatively standard brick masonry cavity wall design. North Prospect - falling down wallUnfortunately a relatively weak concrete mortar was used which today no longer bonds the brick courses together, and in combination with corroded wall ties means the properties are structurally unsound and are largely reliant on external render to stop them falling down. Additionally, partly because of the seaside location in the south west and partly because of the poor state of the walls the properties are very damp – some walls have almost 100% humidity.

Although techniques have been devised to fix many of these problems, including replacing the cavity ties, injecting structurally bonding insulation and external wall insulation, the techniques are expensive and at up to £90K per home, close to the cost of building new homes.

Social Deprivation

Over time the estate has become more socially deprived. This process was accelerated with the closure of the Plymouth dockyards in the 1990s. The area became a ‘sink’ estate, and by the 2000’s was characterised by social unrest, health problems, drinking, drug taking and multi-generational long-term unemployment.

Redevelopment, Phasing and Buyout Challenges

Part of the reason for Curo organising this visit was to understand the challenges of persuading residents of the benefits of the demolition of their existing homes and to reassure them by example that despite the disruption the result was would be in the long term benefit of the community.

Plymouth Community Homes outlined some of the challenges they faced 5 years ago at the start of this process:

  • How to persuade residents to move out of their homes
  • Dealing with large extended families, spread over multiple homes in the existing North Prospect estate, moving them to new estates en masse
  • Buying out private rented landlords who valued their homes based on their rental streams rather than the market prices of the homes
  • Phasing the development, so that social renters were found homes elsewhere in the city to move to despite their being long waiting lists for social rented homes in the city. There was an expectation that many of these residents, once they moved out of the estate would not want to return to the newly built homes
  • Funding: getting the development started in a rush in 2010 before government funding for such schemes was withdrawn

Many of these challenges will be faced by Curo during the redevelopment of the existing Foxhill site.

Differences between the Foxhill/Mulberry Park development and North Prospect

Although there were many similarities between the 2 sites and programs there were also some differences:

  • North Prospect does not include the redevelopment of a brownfield site like the ex-MOD part of the Foxhill site. The ex-MOD site should make phasing easier, allowing Curo to move residents into new homes before demolishing the existing homes, reducing the displacement of residents outside the area
  • The economics of the two developments are quite different:
    •  Project risk at North Prospect is likely much lower because of the substantial (£30 ? million) government funding and no purchase of a brownfield site
    • Curo are hoping to fund much of the development by selling expensive market homes probably in the £250K to £700K range – in North Prospect market homes are selling for £160K to £250K so a much lower cross-subsidy for the affordable homes is required
  • North Prospect is much more integrated into the city of Plymouth, than the more isolated Foxhill estate, so transport and on-site employment was less of an issue in Plymouth
  • Although there is a school associated with North Prospect, it is on the edge of the site and was rebuilt before plans were put in place for the housing redevelopment

The new development

  • the homes have been designed by HTA architects to fit into the local vernacular, with some homes highlighted on their lower floors with locally or Bristol quarried stoneNorth Prospect - new homes
  • Homes have been built to Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH) level 4, although there was some confusion over whether the market homes were built to level 3 or not?
  • The socially rented homes were built to Lifetime Homes standard – so wider corridors, stairs and accommodation for vertical elevators if required
  • Socially rented homes also included cycle stores and rain water butts
  • All homes had solar PV panels on the roof.  The market homes had a minimum of 3 panels to meet CfSH 4, the socially rented a more reasonable 5 to 6. The panels were black to blend in with the simulated slate roofs, but were not roof integrated and so looked somewhat of an afterthought
  • Going forward with the relaxation in government regulations and the withdrawal of Code for Sustainable Homes it appears the standards of the homes are probably going to be reduced although PCH are actively discussing the Passivhaus standard with Peter Warm – a standard which Transition Bath expects Barratts might find impossible to meet

Feedback on the new homes

Feedback from the existing residents of the Foxhill estate and Curo Project Management included:

  • They generally liked the homes and felt the show homes they visited were surprisingly spacious
  • They liked the layouts, particularly the upside down layouts with the living space on the top floors
  • The prices of the homes starting at £160K appeared attractive compared with Bath
  • Accessible parking immediately in front of the homes was seen as a positive
  • The paved roadway encourages people to drive slowly
  • Showers were not provided by default in bathrooms over baths – which residents felt was an unreasonable cost saving on Barratts part
  • The balconies on some of the homes provided a nice additional outdoor living space

Feedback from Transition Bath and potential lessons for Mulberry Park:

  • The streetscape was too car parking dominant, contrast the built landscape

North Prospect - new homes parking

with that of the planning application:

 North Prospect - new homes parking planning application

We feel that Curo/HTA should resist pressure to have 2 car parking spaces outside each home, try to break the parking up with planters as per the planning application and push for car club usage to reduce second car ownership. The curb appeal of some of the North Prospect streets was quite poor

  • The paved roads gave the impression that car drivers were unlikely to speed down the roads, making them more child and pedestrian friendly
  • Quality of materials: the rendered finish was not very appealing and many of the streets looked nondescript. Breaking up the exterior facings with stone accents improved the look of the streets significantly but this only seemed to have been implemented near to the hub. A similar issue occurred at HTA/Barratts development at Hanham Hall in Bristol where cost reductions during the project has meant that the handsome timber and steel cladding of the early phases of the development has been replaced with bland white rendered exteriors in later phases
  • Solar panels: it was encouraging that all houses built to date included solar panels, and that these panels were black which matched the slate-effect roofs. However we feel:
    • it would have been better if these were roof integrated rather than being sat proud of the roof
    • that the market homes should have more panels, Barratts seemed to have penny pinched by providing the minimum 3 panels to meet CfSH 4. Once you have the infrastructure (wiring/inverters) in place it doesn’t really make economic sense not to install as many panels as possible as the incremental payback is less than 4 years (capital cost versus reduced electricity bills). Square Bay in its Warminster Road planning application are building to CfSH 4, but offering residents the option of paying to install more panels which would bring the properties close to CfSH5 energy standards, this is something we feel Curo should consider offering at Mulberry Park
    • overall we are concerned about statements made on a number of occasions by HTA architects that solar PV is unreliable and a worse investment than better fabric, something which we don’t agree with
  • Overheating: a number of residents complained about overheating in summer, something the developers said they were looking into. This is an inevitable consequence of modern well insulated homes build to current building regulations with low air permeability, orientated to maximise winter solar gain. Current parametric energy assessment tools like SAP don’t assess this problem well. We feel Curo and HTA should address this issue when developing Mulberry Park, and should consider external shading and MVHR to solve these problems. We feel that Barratts statement at North Prospect that they were ‘looking into solutions’ to the problem was very weak, given the problems have been known for a couple a years and solutions like external shading are well known and something both Barratts and HTA have implemented at Hanham Hall
  • Gardens: some of the gardens were very small (2m x 6m). We wondering if they are this small whether they are worth having at all? It was not clear on some of the houses, given there wasn’t space for a shed, how and where residents would store lawn mowers to mow these rather small lawns, and whether it would not be better to provide a largely paved courtyard type garden if housing densities didn’t allow for space for a reasonable garden?

Community Facilities

The site also has a ‘community hub’ building which includes retirement flats above (top 3 red storeys in  the photo to the right) with community facilities below. The community facilities include:

  • A libraryNorth Prospect - community hub
  • A ‘Community Learning Centre’ providing courses in:
    • basic maths and English
    • job interview and application preparation skills
    • parenting skills
    • cooking and gardening
  • Exercise classes
  • Community meeting space
  • Plans for a shop, but given there are several large supermarkets close to the site there is currently no provision

Residents did however suggest that the community hub was struggling economically and was unable to cover its costs?

Miscellaneous

  • Allotments: here appears to be no allotment provision on the estate despite an 800 person waiting list in Plymouth. Historically the residents were not making use of their large gardens so it may have been decided not to invest further in allotment space?
  • Employment: 8% of those employed on the new build were apprentices and about 25% of the 156 workforce are from the local area. This was part of the contract with Barratts.

Conclusions

  • North Prospect acts as a suitable model from which lessons can be learned for Foxhill/Mullberry Park given there are similarities between the two sites and developments
  • The demolition and rebuilding of homes is disruptive, in the case of North Prospect it is unlikely that many of the displaced residents will ever return. However in the case of Foxhill, given the empty MOD site, phasing should allow a higher proportion of displaced residents to stay in the area
  • The rebuilding of the estate, largely through the dilution of concentrations of the socially deprived in this ‘sink estate’ should reduce the problems which historically blighted the estate. This is also likely to be true for Foxhill, and economically is important to Curo in order to justify higher sales values of the market homes
  • The demolition and rebuilding poor quality homes can be more sustainable and more economic compared with expensive refurbishment. There is a strong case for this at North Prospect, but less so at Foxhlll as the existing homes are in a better state
  • Although the build contract with Barratts required local apprenticeships and employment, the scale of this commitment seemed limited and it is not clear there will be an ongoing legacy. There appears to be no ongoing commitment to long term employment on the estate
  • The design of the homes needs careful thought and Curo should try to learn from North Prospect:
    • Provision of 2 car parking spaces leads to ugly and car dominated streetscapes unless broken up with planting
    • Paving roads can make slow traffic, making them more child and pedestrian friendly
    • Commitment to high standards of sustainability and energy efficiency in home design is important, provision of solar PV reduces energy consumption and alleviates fuel poverty, but the design of these should include use of black panels and roof integration to improve aesthetics
    • Overheating is an issue with modern highly insulated home designs which architects and large builders tend to ignore as they don’t have to live in the homes. Curo should ensure that this issue is adequately addressed in new home designs

Background Reading

  1. Plymouth North Prospect Regeneration Planning Statement
  2. Wikipedia entry for North Prospect
  3. Plymouth Sustainable Neighbourhoods Study
Posted in Energy, Planning.