Northampton Borough Council’s last big deal
In its final days the authority has agreed to buy the former university campus and develop an ambitious housing scheme. But the financials are being kept under wraps.
Before we bring you today’s article we wanted to give a quick update on our Saturday story about police towing away a car, which had been Greg’s home for six years. After a number of people raised the issue on social media, Northants’ chief constable announced on Twitter over the weekend that Greg’s car will be returned to him at no cost. Over the weekend Greg was put up in a hotel, paid for by a local resident, and a Go fund me page set up by Emma Davies has raised more than £3,000. A caravan has since been found for him and he is due to move in this week.
By Sarah Ward
With just weeks to go before it is wound down, Conservative-led Northampton Borough Council has put in motion what is planned to be the town’s biggest affordable housing development in recent times.
After agreeing to pay an, as yet undisclosed sum, to the University of Northampton for its former St George’s Avenue site opposite the Racecourse, the council’s arms length management company Northampton Partnership Homes (NPH) is now progressing plans to convert, knock down and build new homes on the site.
The plan has been largely approved of by residents and has had few objections from those living nearby. No-one could argue the homes aren’t needed - there are more than 3,600 residents on the authority’s housing list as rising private rents are squeezing many families and households out of the rental market. Around 200 families were living in temporary accommodation (last summer) after becoming homeless. The council has been buying back former council housing to add to its 11,000 stock and has approved a number of new housing schemes.
The Avenue campus scheme is undoubtedly the most ambitious. But just how much the project (which will now be inherited by the incoming West Northants Unitary) will cost, is not being made public.
The current plans
The university moved to its £330m Waterside Campus in 2018. Before that it had operated from two campus sites off Park Campus on Boughton Green Road and the Avenue Campus. It sold off the Park Avenue campus to Persimmon Homes which is building 675 homes there as part of the Scholar’s Green development.
The 16 acre Avenue Campus is the one that is being bought by the borough council. The university gained planning permission for the Avenue campus site in November from the borough council’s planning committee.
The proceeds of the sale will be used by the university to pay off debts acquired during the new campus build. The borough council took out £46m in Public Works Loan Board borrowing on behalf of the university in 2016 so the university could cover the costs of the Waterside campus build. In December the council agreed to the university deferring the final £8.5m payment that is due next month and instead it will be paid back in 2022.
It was what is called a hybrid planning application, meaning that some of elements have been given full planning consent and other parts have been given outline planning, with final details to be consented down the line.
The approved scheme involves knocking down most of the 1930s Maidwell building but keeping the two pavilions at the west and east wings and converting these spaces into 26 apartments. 32 new homes will be built in the demolished space.
The second part of the scheme has outline planning permission for a further 112 homes. In the report to last week’s cabinet there were further details given on how NPH would develop these homes.
The Basset Lowke Building, a 1990s four storey student hall of residence, will be converted into 48 homes. Currently made up of 248 en-suite student bedrooms plus communal space the plan is to transform the rooms into a mix of 48 two and three bedroom apartments.
63 new terraced and semi-detached homes will also be built on the site.
The Quinton Building, which was originally a family home, and has been used as a site office for years, will be converted back into a family residence towards the end of the development.
The historic Grade II listed Newton Building, which was built in 1915 and was once the Kingsley Park Middle School, is part of the sale. There is a condition that the building should be maintained for educational use and NPH plans to use this building as a place to give tenants training and digital skills as well as a new site for it’s head office. A cabinet report in January gives more details of the plans for the Newton Building.
However planning consent is still to be gained for the Basset Lowke and 63 home section of the masterplan.
The planning application for the site had been stalled last year in part due to concerns from statutory consultees - organisations which must by law have a say before any scheme is approved.
The university had first submitted its planning application back in 2016, but has taken four years to get to approval in principle.
Sticking points had been from the highways authority which had concerns about the impact of the proposed 200 homes on the road network. They withdrew their objections after the number of homes in the scheme was reduced to 170.
Sport England also initially objected due to the impact the homes would have being so close to the sport facilities at nearby Malcolm Arnold Academy. It withdrew its concerns after noise assessments.
The clinical commissioning group has said the local primary health services are already at capacity and wants a financial contribution from the university to ensure there can be an investment in the health provision so that new residents moving to the housing scheme have good access to services.
Some neighbour representations have also voiced concerns about pile driving for the four storey building possibly causing problems for nearby properties and there were also concerns about the impact on the nearby wildlife conservation area.
How is it going to be paid for?
To date, neither the price of the site purchase, nor the financial cost of the conversion and rebuild have been made public.
At its virtual cabinet meeting last week the council approved ‘in principle’ the redevelopment of the site - a decision which took less than four minutes, with no questions from any cabinet members.
Council leader Jonathan Nunn said draft reports had been reviewed by the cabinet, so ‘anybody who doesn’t think many questions are being asked, those questions have probably been asked already’. He did not give any examples of any questions that had been posed by cabinet members of officers.
A report about the finances was exempt - meaning it cannot be seen by the public. The only figures available in the public report included brief details of a financial appraisal which estimates the scheme has a net present value (NPV) of £5.3m over 40 years. This means it is projected to have a £5.3m return on investment over four decades.
The campus purchase was agreed by the cabinet in December. NPH on behalf of the authority had put in a bid in June 2020 for the site when the university advertised it on the market.
However the legal section of the report to the December cabinet said:
“As a number of significant and impactful issues relating to the future development of Avenue Campus for affordable housing remain to be determined and resolved, Cabinet should be aware that it is currently not in a position to determine the extent of the risk that the Council may be exposed to should there be a shortfall between the amount of grant funding secured and the amount of investment required from the Council to make the proposed affordable housing viable.
“The aforementioned comments are not to detract from the value the Council may gain from the increase in available affordable housing in Northampton, but to highlight the risk the Cabinet is exposed to in considering the proposal without the benefit of key information.”
The council will put in a bid to government agency Homes England for a grant to cover the cost of the redevelopment. NN Journal asked the council’s communications department a series of questions about the sums in order to give the numbers some scrutiny.
However, the authority refused to say how much it has agreed to pay the university, due to commercial sensitivity. Final due diligence and legal agreements are being carried out and the costs should be revealed in the final accounts of the authority later on this year.
This refusal to give details of a deal with another organisation is common practice for local authorities. However not to disclose how much a public works project may cost is less ordinary.
The council press officer said the details of the estimated project cost could not be disclosed because ‘it is commercially sensitive’ and therefore would not be put in the public domain until ‘it was safe and legal to do so’.
The authority would not provide a ballpark figure, or say how much grant it would be applying to Homes England for.
The cabinet report from last week says the council’s finance team and the housing authority have completed a joint assessment of the cost of the development and the amount of the subsidy that will be needed to make the scheme viable.
It says if the government does not award the amount of funding required, four subsidy options will be reviewed. These include using capital receipts from council house sales and dropping some of the affordable home plans and introducing market rental properties.
NN Journal spoke to cabinet member Cllr Phil Larratt, who said about the cost of the scheme:
“From what I have seen I’m comfortable with it, no problem at all.
“We are desperately short of affordable housing in Northampton. The financials have all been gone into. They have to stack up to provide value for money for the HRA. We will be doing our due diligence on it. It is going to have to be a scheme that stacks up.
“This is definitely not being done in a rushed way in advance of the unitary. The fact is, it is something that came on the market and it’s a case of having to respond to the market.”
Cllr Larrett also says he is confident that NPH is up to the job. The company, which is wholly owned by the council, was set up in 2015 and in recent years has built more than 200 homes and is currently constructing 220 more. The organisation’s in-house team of surveyors, clerk of works and project managers will be involved in the scheme, although NPH will appoint a technical design team and take on specialist consultants for heritage and design safety.
It will also procure the contractors to do the work, which according to the current time frame, should begin with a site-wide demolition programme from as early as this May.
Once the homes are built they will be managed by NPH and allocated to people on the housing register. The rental for the properties will help cover the cost and upkeep of the scheme over the long term.
What the opposition say
Cllr Jane Birch, who is a Labour councillor for the Trinity ward, within which the Avenue campus sits, is in favour of the project.
‘I think it is hugely ambitious,’ she said. ‘It is a prime site, right next to the green space of the racecourse and near two good secondary schools.
“I think it is a really brave project which is going to provide some good housing.
“I’m glad the council is proposing to keep the Basset Loake building - as it seemed ridiculous to knock it down, especially as it was only built in the 1990s.”
She said despite not doing a scheme of this size before NPH had a good track record.
“I think they have put a lot of thought into this. It is an opportunity for them to revolutionise social housing in a way”.
Cllr Birch has seen some financial figures of the cost, but was unsure whether this was for the full project.
The council is now applying for funding from Homes England and will need to work up a planning application, which will most likely be decided by the new West Northamptonshire Council that launches in April this year.