North Yorkshire County Council’s housing development company has ambitions to make a difference by buildings homes for sale

North Yorkshire County Council on why it is building homes for sale on local authority land

In 2016 North Yorkshire County Council was burdened with pressing budget considerations. The Government’s austerity programme had slashed public spending over the past six years and, at the same time, the local authority was faced with the spiralling costs of adult social care and other vital services. Many other councils decided there was no option but to cut back but North Yorkshire, led by Councillor Carl Les, took a proactive approach and put the emphasis on raising revenue.

One of the areas it looked at was housing. North Yorkshire is one of the most beautiful parts of God’s Own County where homes are sought-after and command high prices and so with that in mind, the seeds of a new business were sown. Instead of selling redundant council-owned land to house builders who would go on to make a substantial profit from the properties they constructed, the council decided to establish a company that would develop the sites so that money made could be ploughed back into providing essential services.

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The option for this was there thanks to the 1963 Local Authorities Land Act, which gave councils the power to develop land and the 2000 Local Government Act, which allowed them to do anything that promote the wellbeing of their communities.

Brierley Homes directors (from left) Matt O’Neill, David Bowe, Karl Battersby and Barry Khan at its new development - Woodfield Square in Harrogate.

It was an ambitious undertaking but the result is Brierley Homes. “We operate as an independent house builder would, but we are accountable to the county council, which is the shareholder. So we buy the council land at market value with no discounts and we are also able to bid for other sites, as any developer would,” says Brierley Homes development director Matt O’Neill, who is also the council’s Assistant Director of Growth, Planning and Trading Standards.

The council owned, private limited company is lean with just three members of staff, including a senior development manager and two project managers. Spawforths architects and planners were brought on board to help with design, tender packs, finding contacts and making planning applications as planning permission must be applied for in the usual way via district councils or National Park Authorities. North Yorkshire County Council is not a planning authority so cannot be accused of bias.

“We pay for use of the council’s back office services which are used to organise finance and insurance. We also pay interest on the £25m start-up loan from the county council,” says Matt, who adds that the virtuous circle includes the use of Align Property Partners, which specialises in architecture, quantity surveying and structural engineering, and First North Law, both of which are subsidiaries of North Yorkshire County Council.

Housing development is a path trodden by other UK local authorities but most build social housing while accepting that that a percentage of their affordable homes to rent will be lost to right to buy.

Criticism has been levelled at North Yorkshire County Council Council for not building affordable homes but Matt O’Neill says: “What we are doing with Brierley Homes is a different way of helping the community. The more money we generate for the council, the more money will go back into frontline services.”

The company’s pilot development was on a brownfield site in Thorpe Willoughby, near Selby, where 17 homes were built and sold for a 20 per cent gross profit that effectively equalled a loss due to start-up costs and a pandemic-induced rise in the price of materials and labour.

Woodfield Square in Harrogate is set to see more substantial gains and comprises 19 houses ranging from £250,000 to £395,000, which are selling fast via Linley & Simpson.

Brierley Homes’ Millwright Park site in Pateley Bridge, a redundant council depot, will deliver another 20 homes and while 21 properties are being built at Yew Tree Farm in Marton-cum-Grafton. After that there is a healthy pipeline with sites in the North York Moors National Park, Swainby, Harrogate, Great Ouseburn and in and around Leyburn.

All developers boast that their emphasis is on quality but with the council’s reputation at stake, Matt O’Neill says: “It is important that we get it right.” Walter Brierley (1862-1926), the York-based architect the company is named after, would agree. “We have focused on space requirements and that was well received at Thorpe Willoughby because we offered more square footage than competitors,” says Matt, who is confident that the business will be a success.

While other councils have tried and given up building homes, he says strong shareholder governance via the council’s leader and its chief executive plus the passionate Brierley Homes team makes the difference. “Our other USP is that this is a beautiful area with high demand and high values. We couldn’t do this in an area with lower house prices. We are aiming to generate millions for front line services,” concludes Matt.

Pictured: Brierley Homes directors (from left) Matt O’Neill, David Bowe, Karl Battersby and Barry Khan at its new development in Harrogate.

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