Friday, 13 February 2009

Is EASEL a dead parrot? A recent timeline

In November 2008, the Council announced that progress in EASEL (the East and South East Leeds Regeneration Scheme) was temporarily suffering from the emerging global credit and housing problems. Consequently, talk of 5000 new homes on 120 hectares was dropped and more realistic plans for 1848 homes on 37 hectares by 2022 was announced, with the reassurance that once the market picked up again, the scale of regeneration would also be expanded.

On 17 December 2008, the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a frontpage exclusive claiming that EASEL was in "jeopardy" due to the credit crunch and housing market crash. With mortgages increasingly impossible to get due to the banking crisis and falling house prices, and the looming threat of mass unemployment, demand for the 743 new private homes earmarked for Gipton and Seacroft had simply vanished.

Lack of demand meant that Bellway would not carry on building homes they had no confidence in selling, which in turn meant that the Council's own revenues from the sale of land and houses to invest in the regeneration also shrivelled up. The YEP confirmed that, nearly five years after first being announced, 9 months after a contract was signed between the Council and Bellway, and 100s of flattened council homes later, construction work had started on only 2 of the first 8 development sites. The article stated that 'top-level talks' were underway to rescue the project.

Two days later (19 Dec 2008), the YEP ran the Council's response. The Council would "submit new plans to the Government in a bid to keep a £1 billion regeneration project on track".
Tory Councillor Les Carter, executive member for housing and neighbourhoods, said: "We have met with Government officials and it has been agreed we will submit plans early in the New Year on how best to keep people on site and keep work going. This is a housing-led regeneration scheme and the credit crunch and falling house prices have clearly had an effect. While we have acknowledged there will be delays in the current climate, we will not be walking away from this... We want to be in a position where the work on Easel can easily be stepped up when the economy improves and development becomes more attractive." In other words, the Council still believed that regeneration based on private housing and a continually growing housing market would still work, we just had to wait for the market to stop failing.

Although the Council acknowledged there was a problem, construction workers on site in Seacroft were telling locals in December that they'd almost no interest in the new houses and were preparing to stop work and cover the unfinished sites.

Roll forward to January 13 2009. The YEP reveals that, as the EASEL scheme was floundering, Bellway was announcing bonuses of £275,000 to Chief Executive John Watson and £178,500 each to the commercial and finance directors. The bonuses took Watson's total pay for 2008 to £824,917 (or approx 10 new Bellway Homes in Seacroft). Meanwhile, as the directors of the cocked-up regeneration scheme were adding to their immense wealth, locals of East Leeds were unable to afford any of the new housing being built.

Then, on 29 January 2009, council leader Andrew Carter announced The Housing City Campaign, which included news that the Council would spend £2.4m buying up 20 out of 53 homes to be built by Bellways by Summer 2009 (7 two bedroom properties and 13 three bedroom properties).

The details were then confirmed at February's (Friday 13th) Council Executive Board. £1.2m would come from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) - yes, out of Leeds tenants rents - and £1.2.m from money the council made in selling the EASEL phase one sites. 10 of the homes would be let as council housing (with the potential for using target rent levels - that means, higher rents than elsewhere in the area), and the other 10 as 'intermediate rented' housing (possibly 'rent to mortgage' schemes). The whole purpose was to persuade Bellway not to abandon the house building programme by the end of January 2009. The £2.4m would provide the finance to enable Bellway to complete a total of 53 homes, safeguard the jobs of workers currently employed on the sites and recruit an apprentice joiner. The Council would then seek a two year funding partnership with the new Homes and Communities Agency and East North East Homes (the ALMO managing council housing in the area) to support the building of 200 homes encompassing a variety of "housing products for both sites 5 & 7, including intermediate rent, equity share (including the council’s equity loan scheme) and register social landlord (RSL) products". These packages would "help to stimulate demand for house sales in the area and allow local people to afford the new homes".

That, folks, is what Paul Daniels might call Magic! Or rather, what we would call, Alice in Wonderland.

Let's be clear: back in March 2008, Bellway signed a contract to build 743 new private homes over a 10 year period on eight sites in Gipton and Seacroft. Less than one year later, and the Council is desperately trying to support the building of just 200 homes on just 2 sites. In the process, the Council has knocked down 100s of homes and while some were poor quality unpopular with tenants, others were decent, brick-built homes that just happened to be 'in the wrong place' (i.e. next to an adjoining empty site that if enlarged would get both Bellway and the Council more money). Now, the Council - and that ultimately means tenants and taxpayers - is bailing out the 'private' housing project in return for... a mix of homes whose rents and prices will still be unaffordable to the vast majority of local people. And the Council believes that these piffling numbers will somehow reinvigorate the private housing market!!!

We fully understand the difficulties imposed by 20 years of anti-council housing policies on the Council for investing in and building new council homes. But we cannot comprehend why the Council continues to believe in the magic of the housing market and the illusion of cheap credit availability. It should scrap the EASEL project, place the 8 sites into its affordable housing programme and stop trying to gentrify East Leeds for a group of people who no longer exist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, don't know if you'll get this as it's on the old site, but worth a try. Have you got any info on what happened to the Bellway/Easel project between your story above and tenants moving into new homes in Thorn Walk, Gipton earlier this year?