Developer wins battle to scrap affordable homes at Swanage site

In what’s been called ‘a travesty of planning’, a building company has won its case not to provide affordable social housing as part of a development at the former St Mary’s School site in the heart of Swanage.

After much heated debate, councillors at the Dorset Council eastern planning committee on Wednesday 9th February 2022, voted to allow Bracken Developments to drop the legal requirement to provide much needed affordable housing.

Old St Mary's School

The site, formerly owned by the Catholic Church, was previously a nunnery and a school

Purbeck House Hotel

The new housing will be in a desirable location next door to the Purbeck House Hotel and its facilities

Sold to the developers by the Catholic Church

The site, sold to the developers by the Catholic Church, is next to the historic Purbeck House Hotel just off the High Street and is on a slope which gives far reaching sea and countryside views.

Planning permission was granted in April 2019 for 30 homes on the condition that 11 of them were allocated as affordable housing.

Applying for the affordable housing requirement to be dropped, the developer’s agent, Jo Tasker from Ken Parke Planning Consultants argued that it was economically unviable to build on the site with the inclusion of affordable housing, which provides less profit than homes sold on the open market.

Generate about £830,000 in profit

The government advises that a realistic profit margin for property developers should be between 15 and 20 percent and the independent District Valuer calculated that this site would only generate about £830,000 in profit – a nine and a half percent profit.

This was based on estimates of a 1-bed flat selling for £177,500 and the 3-bed detached house achieving £600,000 in Swanage. The cost of the land was calculated at £1,146,103.

Map of site
Dorset Council
Plan of the development

The plan for the site just off the High Street in Swanage

“Support Swanage, support our community”

At the planning meeting, councillor Gary Suttle, who represents Swanage and is also Dorset Council’s portfolio holder for finance, commercial and capital strategy, challenged the maths. He said:

“I’m fully aware of the appraisal by the District Valuer but you will have seen that this is subjective to what they call average house prices…

“Well, around £177,000 to buy something in Swanage, well just imagine, the queue will go all the way round Swanage! So I would challenge some of these figures and the amount of money they are really going to make.

“The actual difference in profit that you are being asked to retain for them is probably contained within the additional costs that they have included in this report.

“I am saying that this (development) is perfectly viable and I think you should support Swanage, support our community and refuse the removal of section 106 (affordable housing).”

Discussions on financial unviability

The decision had been deferred from the previous meeting to allow Bracken Developments and its planning advisor to discuss with Dorset Council planners whether the site was really economically unviable.

Councillor Bill Trite, who represents Swanage and is a member of the planning committee urged councillors to put local people and their need for affordable housing first. He added:

“We might have expected the applicant to put forward a compromise to this problem but there’s no evidence for that. This applicant has a history of seeking to get out of affordable housing commitments.”

Old St Mary's School
Old St Mary's School

The old school buildings

“We are setting a precedent”

Councillor Alex Brenton said she was concerned about setting a precedent of allowing large developments to go ahead with no affordable housing element:

“I am very worried about this application because if we allow a site with 30 dwellings to not have any affordable housing on it, what about the next one and the next one and the next one?

“We are setting a precedent of going back on what we originally agreed. And I repeat, what we agreed was obviously affordable at the time.”

“It’s extremely disappointing

Councillor Shane Bartlett said:

“I think there is a consensus of opinion that it’s extremely disappointing that we will not get affordable housing on this site but I think with the wording in the Local Plan and with the position that the developers have taken, we’re in a difficult position.

“The likelihood is that we are not going to achieve affordable housing on this site. My personal position is, if it went to appeal, I don’t think we’d be in a position we could defend because of what’s written in the Local Plan.”

He then went on to add that he was proposing to drop the requirement for affordable housing but only on the condition that a further economic viability assessment was done and if it showed an improvement in the financial viability, then the developer would have to pay a contribution towards local affordable housing.

This was voted for by a majority of seven votes to two.

Old St Mary's School
Old St Mary's School

The brownfield site is on a slope and the developers say will cost more to build on than a greenfield site

“Appalling decision”

Speaking after the meeting councillor, Bill Trite said:

“This appalling decision is exactly wrong for a place like Swanage where affordable housing is so badly needed.

“It sets a most disturbing precedent for the future, while flatly contradicting Dorset Council’s own stated housing priorities.

“If, apparently, there isn’t enough profit in the scheme as it currently stands, this developer should be required to make way for another who’s willing to promote an altered version rather than have the affordable housing element sacrificed in this wasteful way.

“It’s a travesty of planning.”

Countryside views from St Mary's school site
Seaview from St Mary's school site

Many of the new properties will enjoy beautiful views of the Purbeck Hills and Swanage Bay

“All about money”

Councillor Gary Suttle added:

“It was an appalling result for anyone who believes in the need for affordable housing in Swanage.

“In the last meeting I tried to point out the importance of a diverse housing stock. If you wish to retain younger people in this town you have to ensure that housing is available. In today’s meeting it was all about money and figures can be made to fit the outcome.

“I tried to point out that there was sufficient profit depending on interpretation. It fell on deaf ears. It’s no good reviewing it later as we have lost the housing.

“Dorset Council is committed to economic growth and affordable housing but these decisions do little to support this.”

The developer’s planning agent, Ken Parke Planning Consultants was approached for its reaction to the decision but has so far not responded.

Further information

  • The planning application is on the Dorset Council website
  • The Dorset Council’s planning report on the application is also on the council’s website

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