Not all about the volume

Today’s headlight grabbing society is all about the big numbers. XXX thousand of this and XXX million of that. So 100 can pale into insignificance – unless you’re talking about affordable housing.

County Durham Housing Group has just completed its 100th new-build property. It’s a number that could be easy to dismiss among talk of 500+ development sites and widespread acceptance that Britain needs 300,000 more affordable homes.

But far from being an example of low ambition or failing to acknowledge demand, it’s actually a result of thinking differently and doing the right thing for the communities we work in.

Those 100 homes aren’t on a single scheme, they’ve actually been delivered over 10 sites. And while some prefer to go for the big headlines by making a single planning application and, bang, off they go; this isn’t the group’s approach. So why not?

It’s simple. From the outset we’ve never believed that a housing association home should be just a ‘unit’ on a spreadsheet.

No private sector developer would have even considered building a pair of bespoke bungalows on a small brownfield site in the tiny North Pennines village of Rookhope. And I’ve got real doubts that any of the volume builders would have looked at an old garage block site in Pity Me, on the outskirts of Durham, and thought ‘perfect, let’s build half a dozen two-bedroom houses here’.

We built there, and elsewhere, because we knew that the community needed those homes. We spent time looking at our data for existing demand and provision in each of the communities we considered building in, then tailored the properties we were developing accordingly.

We’ve been very careful to pick sustainable sites wherever we’ve built too. So far they’ve all been brownfield, and the majority have been real in-fill developments too. Weaving new homes into an existing estate will always be more difficult to manage, on the ground and on paper. But it means keeping families and communities together, close to facilities and often in an area they know and love.

So, far from being ashamed of the fact that we’ve ‘only’ completed 100 ‘units’ in the last 18-months or so, we’re fiercely proud of the fact that we’ve built 100 homes that really do full justice to the word.

We’re already on site at three more locations as we work towards a target of completing 545 new homes by 2021 and we’re preparing to begin on several others.

The biggest site we’re working on right now features around 50-homes. But even there we’re carrying on the same ethos and carefully tailoring our construction to the local circumstances with a mix of two and three-bedroom bungalows plus three-bedroom houses.

If we’d focused only on the headlines and ‘units’ our programme would have looked very different. We’d have run the risk of losing the link between the properties we build and the families that live in them.

Our approach means we know that 100 families now have new homes that really fit their needs in the right location. We know from the tenants we’ve spoken to, particularly in some of the wheelchair adaptable properties developed, that the impact the homes have made on their day-to-day lives is huge. It’s something you can’t easily measure. But, surely, it’s what really matters in social housing.

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