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Happy ending for council housing

Straw houses may sound like the stuff of fairytales but in North Kesteven in Lincolnshire they are very much a reality, forming part of the district council’s new-build programme

North Kesteven District Council faces the challenge of meeting high housing demand in a largely rural area and its new-build programme is just one of the many ways of providing affordable homes in the district.

The council secured funding in both rounds of the local authority newbuild programme for 35 properties. Two have been constructed using straw bales and work has started on two more.

While the straw houses, built in partnership with Taylor Pearson Construction and designers Amazonails, have attracted a lot of interest and a Royal visit from the Duke of Gloucester, they are far from a gimmick.

Head of communities at North Kesteven District Council Philip Roberts hopes they will be the first of many. “A lot depends on what happens with future availability of finance but we haven’t done this as a one-off project,” he says. “The hope is that if we are able to access further funding and we have sites that we can work with, then our programme will look to contain an element of this construction.”

Like any local authority North Kesteven has targets for new-build. “We have got specific targets for new affordable accommodation within the district which are very difficult to maintain because we have got very high levels of housing need,” says Roberts. “But through a variety of measures including our own developments, working with housing associations, looking at local needs surveys and Section 106 agreements we have been able to achieve a robust programme during the economic downturn by working in partnership and taking every opportunity possible but we are concerned about the level of future delivery, given the funding situation.”

Roberts is also hoping that the Government will scrap the housing revenue subsidy system allowing the council to keep its rental income and invest the cash in areas such as new-build.

While new-build has a role to play the council also has a commitment to its existing stock. A ll homes have been brought up to the Decent Homes Standard but it recognises the need for further investment with green retrofit already an area of focus.

Many of the council’s rural properties are not on the gas network and have to use expensive electric or solid fuel heating. “We are obviously mindful of fuel poverty issues,” says Roberts. “So we have been experimenting with other forms of insulation and heating such as ground and air source heat pumps and wood pellet burners for one of our sheltered schemes.

“Trials of ground source heat pumps show that they work really well but the trouble is they are not cheap. Again that links with the need to free up housing subsidy so we can invest more in those sorts of improvements locally. A s a follow up to Decent Homes these are the sorts of things we would like to concentrate on.”

As well as improving the condition of the council’s stock and meeting the challenge of fuel poverty, supporting tenants in their homes and empowering them to stay on top of tenancy conditions are priorities. The council runs a service, with environmental social enterprise Hill Holt Wood, to help vulnerable people to maintain their gardens, which in rural areas are often large and difficult to keep on top of.

The service, which employs a number of people through the Future Jobs Fund, is about to be extended, as R oberts explains: “We will provide a one-off maintenance programme for vulnerable people with gardens in a really poor condition which need a big blitz and a monthly service to help vulnerable tenants to stay on top of their gardens but we will also offer a new service that all tenants can opt in to where they can pay a standard amount for fortnightly maintenance such as grass cutting.”

Although the scrapping of the Future Jobs Fund could affect the scheme, Roberts is hopeful that by charging non-vulnerable tenants for maintenance the council can sustain the same level of service. It has also set up a garden sharing scheme to encourage tenants who are struggling to maintain their gardens to share them with the local community to grow local produce, for example.

Community work and tenant participation is a big part of what the council does and it is about to embark on its latest community roadshow based around the TSA standards. “I know it is unclear as to what is likely to happen to the TSA at the moment but nonetheless we are working to those standards and want to obtain tenants’ views on how well we are doing against them before we prepare our annual report in October,” explains R oberts.

While there are many challenges ahead, not least potential regulatory reform and financial uncertainty Roberts is upbeat. “There are challenges but also opportunities for us to grow,” he says.

And no matter what comes next North Kesteven District Council and its straw houses will still be standing.

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