Hexham in Northumberland is the kind of town where people want to live.
A couple of years ago a survey voted it the happiest place in the UK.
Famous for its magnificent Abbey, 15th century Moot Hall, and 14th century Old Gaol, Hexham is one of the earliest seats of Christianity in England. But residents and visitors will have noticed in recent times that the town is beginning to look rather shabby around the edges.
Shops lie empty and many buildings are in a poor state of repair.
Work is underway on some properties, thanks to a modest government town centre re-development fund, but the to-do-list is long.
The cost-of-living crisis in Hexham town centre is biting hard.
One of Hexham’s problems- and it is by no means alone- is that properties are left empty and land is redundant.
Landlords, owners, developers can wait for the right time to sell, or invest. And in the current climate sometimes they just can not find buyers.
But there is another side to Hexham which also reflects this slide; the town has a housing crisis. This may come as a surprise to many of its middle-class residents, living in houses with an average price of more than three hundred thousand pounds.
A recent housing needs survey revealed the true extent of the problem.
The statistics were stark: Four hundred people had left Hexham in the previous five years for “housing reasons.”
Only ten percent of the five hundred homes Hexham required in that time were built.
In the 2021 census, Hexham’s proportion of affordable homes was the lowest in Northumberland and the North-East.
Renting is virtually impossible; there are currently no single occupancy social housing units available.
On the private market a Google search reveals just two one-bedroom flats, at the time of writing.
The rents are between £540-£750 per calendar month.
And yet significant housing development is underway in Hexham.
However, if you think that is an opportunity to provide new affordable social housing – think again.
The Old Workhouse site
To the east of the town, along the Corbridge Road, opposite the town’s hospital, a set of buildings lie derelict and boarded up.
It is the site of the old workhouse, where in 1827 Mrs Mary Hutchinson, the governess, supported each pauper at the rate of 2s.6d. per head, per week.
The workhouse finally closed in 1939 and first became a wartime hospital, then Hexham General Hospital in 1948, when the NHS was founded.
The site ceased life as a hospital in 2004 when a new one was opened on the other side of the road by Prime Minister Tony Blair.
After that, the old workhouse became a care home and therapy centre until 2015 when the boards went up.
There was talk of Lidl opening a supermarket.
But then developers bought the main chunk of land and sold it on again to an asset management company called the 79th Group, based in Lancashire.
They proposed a £10m development with thirty-four dwellings.
The development aims to complement the McCarthy Stone retirement properties built next door on another part of the old workhouse site.
When the planning application was presented, it was weighed against both Northumberland County Council and Hexham Town Council’s strategies and statements on social housing.
Both say that affordable social housing is a top priority.
Normally this would mean that ten per cent of dwellings might be designated as social housing.
In fact, Hexham Town Council’s local Neighbourhood Plan states 30% – because of the town’s particular need.
So, out of 41 properties in the 79th Group’s old workhouse plan, at least ten should be social housing.
But developers have perfectly legal ways and means to avoid this.
They are permitted to argue that the provision of social housing is not viable within a scheme, and they would not make a sufficient profit – normally between 15% and 20%.
Or, as in the old workhouse project, they can use what is called the “vacant building credit,” brought in by the Tory Government in 2014.
This allows them to exclude social housing provision if a former building is being demolished or re-furbished. Under these circumstances a “credit” or payment to an affordable housing fund must be made.
Under Northumberland County Council’s Affordable Housing Protocol, for the old workhouse site this equates to a sum of just £9,498.10. Peanuts.
It is worth noting that work has yet to start on the old workhouse site.
And several phone calls to the 79th Group failed to elicit an answer on when it might.
A cynic might say that with falling house prices, rising mortgage rates, and a struggling economy, the developers are sitting on their hands for a while.
It is a similar picture at Prospect House next to the town’s Old Gaol.
This scheme aims to provide eighteen units, but building work has ground to a halt. It is not clear when, or if, it will resume.
But again, the affordability and nature of the development, with former buildings being demolished and converted, meant a “credit” was applied, rather than the provision of social housing.
This time it was just £7,695.
The Wool House
And on the site of Hexham’s old swimming pool, where a development called The Wool House will provide forty-five high end apartments for the “later in life,” there is also no provision for social housing.
This time it is because of the “viability” of the site and the intention to impose a service charge – which, it is stated, social housing residents wouldn’t be able to afford.
Even houses which used to be occupied at affordable rents, fifteen former police houses, remain boarded up.
Tenants were asked to leave the properties in 2015.
Northumbria Police’s current Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness has said she wants to return them to social housing
But so far, no plans have been forthcoming.
All the above prompted much anger and discussion at a recent public meeting in Hexham.
The meeting was arranged jointly by campaign group Tynedale Transformed and The Hexham Debates.
It brought together housing experts, volunteers, and activists to ask the question: what does housing justice look like?
Penny Grennan, a Labour town councillor, and organiser of the event spoke passionately about changing attitudes to housing said:
“We’ve monetised what is a basic human need,
“Once when every town had a significant stock of council housing people had security. There was a continuity of community. But this changed.”
“The profiteering of what is a human need is criminal. The political language of today is that if you cannot afford a house, you are nothing. The power balance in housing is all wrong.”
Wendy Breach of Hexham Community Led Housing said:
“We need genuinely affordable homes in Hexham.
“The Government’s definition of affordable is 80% of market value, or rent, but in a place like Hexham that still is not affordable to many. We can’t have more executive or retirement homes.
Much, if not all, the housing stock in Hexham is based upon builders and developers making large profits.”
But there is hope.
Hexham Middle School moved to the existing Queen Elizabeth High School Site last September and no decision has yet been made by Northumberland County Council on future use.
In a statement they said:
“The site is to be master planned – this means that the potential uses which may be located on the site will be mapped.
“This helps us to make best use of the site within all the development constraints that need to be taken into consideration.”
It is estimated the site could provide up to 144 social housing units.
A petition has been started calling for this to happen.
The Town Council and housing groups are applying pressure.
Maybe the opportunity to help those in desperate need of a home might be grasped – instead of bundles of cash.
But don’t bet on it.