Ashley Vale

Bristol-based community development where an ‘action group’ purchased the site…

Background:

  • The site was a former 2.1 acre scaffolding yard, near central Bristol. There was a concrete slab over most of the area with a redundant three story office block, two large warehouses and other buildings.
  • Local people wanted to avoid a volume developer building 35 fairly identical houses, so they formed an action group to try to influence the process, and to create the opportunity for local people to build their own homes.
  • They went on to set up a non-profit making company, limited by guarantee, (Ashley Vale Action Group – AVAG) which purchased the site. The formation of the company was key to enabling the purchase of the site to go ahead, as the land owner wanted to deal with one body and not a collection of self builders.

Delivery:

  • The agreed layout provided for a mixed self-built development, with 20 individual self build plots, and six housing association homes. The redundant office building was planned to be converted into work space and art space, and possibly some accommodation.
  • The project was also required to update the street lighting in the tunnel leading into the Ashley Vale area of Bristol.
  • The housing association that was originally involved was unable to continue with the project, so the community group developed six self finish bungalows instead.
  • The office building had an additional level added, allowing for six further apartments to be incorporated in the building as well as office and art space and a large multi-use community room.
  • The planning process was very difficult at the early stages, with the community group being considered as a conventional developer by the city planners. There was very little flexibility around the fact that the project was trying to develop in a different way, and to create a more sustainable community. It took a persistent approach to get the project to where it is now.
  • Lightweight timber frame houses that could be supported by the existing concrete raft proved very effective and adaptable to individual needs.
  • Sustainability has been addressed in various ways, including insulating to better than Building Regs requirements, and installing solar panels and a community pellet boiler for the six apartments.
  • The self builders formed a close bond, helping, advising and assisting one another; they feel they have built a community along with their homes.

Finance:

  • The site was purchased for £605,000.
  • The majority of the self builders were first time buyers. Of these, some had the money to buy the land outright (average plot price £35,000) while others borrowed money from relatives. Those with no possibility to raise finance up front were able to buy plots using a 100% accelerator mortgage from Buildstore, however with this kind of mortgage could only be released once the houses had full planning permission and Building Regs approval, which took one year to obtain after the site purchase. Fortunately there was enough money from the other plot sales to cover the shortfall at the time of site purchase.
  • Grant funding totalling around £10,000 was obtained to help with facilitation and training. This was mostly from local sources.
  • Affordability was a key factor – plot prices were low (£35,000 including installation of site infrastructure and services) meaning that it was possible to build a simple family home for as little as £70,000 including the land.
  • A typical smaller plot cost £35,000 in 2001; larger plots cost £45,000. These were secured by a 10% deposit.
  • Typical build costs were £35,000 – £100,000 for a 3/4 bedroom home (Average of £500 per square metre).
  • The six self finish bungalows were sold for £150,000 in 2006 and cost between £15,000 and £30,000 to finish.
  • The self finish apartments were sold at £40,000 plus an additional cost of £70,000 per flat for communal works to the building. Internal finishing works cost around £15,000 to £35,000.
  • The completed self build homes are now valued at £250,000 to £350,000 and the bungalows at around £225,000.

Timescale:

  • Late 1990s – Site came up for development.
  • 2000 – Ashley Vale Action Group formed.
  • 2001 – Site purchased.
  • Build times varied greatly. Some houses were finished within a year, and almost all within five years. One house has made little progress and is still unfinished.
  • After 10 years, 41 homes have been created and the Ashley Vale project has won various prizes and awards.

Learning Points:

  • Form a cohesive group such as company limited by guarantee, a cooperative or Community Land Trust, so that you can engage more formally with a land owner, local authority, product supplier, etc instead of a collection of individuals. You can then also benefit though arranging ‘trade discounts’ for members of the group. (Though you will need invoices addressed to each member – so that you can each reclaim your own VAT).
  • Establish the mechanisms early on for dealing with differing viewpoints and opinions. At least have a principle of how to address differences of opinion that is beyond a normal vote procedure, such as a conflict resolution policy. It is very easy in large groups for some to feel not listened to or hard done by, resulting in energy wasted resolving an internal problem rather than getting on with the project.
  • Arrange training in various topic areas for all members of the group. So that all are up to speed on principles of construction, group work, sustainable design, renewable energy, etc.
  • Establish the principles of the development early on, so all members are fully signed up to the direction of project. For example ‘Sustainable housing’ can mean very different things to different people.
  • Enjoy the process for what it is. The journey is as important as the destination; it may take longer than planned so consider the potential impacts of this at the start. Many of the people at Ashley Vale either rented locally or lived in caravans on site during the development.

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