YoCo meets Citu – online workshop – 19th March 2020

This event was hastily reconvened as a Skype online session due to Coronavirus – many thanks to all who took part. We’re looking at ways of using a more robust platform for ongoing events, but it was extremely helpful to see how this session went.

Many thanks especially to Chris Thompson, managing director of Citu, and to Ian Gray, project director at York Central Partnership (YCP). Here are some notes which summarise today’s discussion.

After brief introductions from everyone, Phil gave a brief update of where we are up to with the York Central Co-Owned (YoCo) proposals – starting from the My York Central big ideas and leading through a number of public events to this one here, which set out a sketchy check on the scale of development we could fit on the site adjacent to Leeman Road which we’d investigated.

Ian then briefly outlined his thinking on the early stages of the development of York Central. He noted that initial phases off Leeman Road had the potential for around 400 homes, and that he was keen that this first phase “set the tone” by showing an intention to do good quality development working in partnership with the community. He also said that while involvement of YoCo in providing affordable housing might “tick a box”, he wanted to show how we could jointly go further and do something which demonstrated that innovative community-led development was possible. Ian also clarified that the recent funding announced for York Central wasn’t the expected HIF funding – he’s yet to find out exactly where this is coming from and what it’s to be spent on.

Chris outlined Citu’s aims – a company very much driven by a wish to address climate change through the developments they do. He described their “vertical integration” – taking on everything from timber frame manufacture through to marketing in order to control their product and ensure quality. He described the Leeds Climate Innovation District – 280 acres overall – and their part in it which will ultimately comprise around 850 homes, some workplaces, a school and care home and a lot of high-quality public realm.

Chris said that a key element in making their approach a success was making efficient use of land; by eliminating roads and surface-level parking they had achieved densities more than three times higher than usual (the Leeds scheme has low parking provision, and buried under the homes and public space). They have found that sales prices have been comparable with others in the area – higher quality and energy performance doesn’t immediately translate into higher values – but that as the development has progressed values have risen (from around £300/sq ft to around £310). Ian commented that YCP would want to act as “master developer” on York Central to ensure they controlled the overall identity of the development.

Chris was asked whether the building methods they were using in Leeds would translate easily across to York Central. Chris noted he was talking very much about the technology – designs and housetypes would be site-specific (they don’t have a range of houses which they drop just anywhere – thank heavens) – but that on the face of it they were currently doing 4-6 storey developments using timber frame. Post-Grenfell timber structures can’t be used above 18m height; this would still allow 5 storeys but there is uncertainty around whether this might be reduced to 11m in upcoming legislation – which would then require different building methods and flies in the face of “zero carbon” aims. Chris noted their Leeds factory had been designed with capacity to serve all of Yorkshire, so if a scheme was built in York the frames would be made in Leeds, but erection and finishing teams might be local.

Chris was asked about mixed tenure and affordability. Citu have been working with Leeds Community Homes – basically aiming to build housing within the mix to be owned and managed by LCH. At present all completed units are market sale, so there’s no experience yet of how a mix of owned/rented works there. The same approach can in principle be taken in York.

Chris was asked about the energy systems at Leeds – these (along with the freeholds of the houses) are collectively owned. Chris noted that control doesn’t actually shift to the occupants until the scheme is finished, but commented that there was an argument for doing this as soon as a critical mass had been reached. In response to a later question he also pointed out that the scheme has its own comms networking, so each house has superfast internet – a key consideration right now and one that helps resilience in future.

Ian was asked about the upcoming spending review and what impact this might have; he commented that the government saw housing as a priority. He was also asked about whether Homes England could apply political pressure to ensure a shift towards more sustainable development (and practically fewer cars = more housing land). He responded that exemplar schemes would be useful in demonstrating this; that he’d been successful in achieving this previously in Oxford and was hopeful about York – he noted the scheme “needs to work for fifteen years or more into the future, not for last year”.

There was a conversation about The Gatehouse – meanwhile use of the existing building on Leeman Road current leased by HE to Network Rail. Ian noted practical difficulties with getting possession of this but said he agreed it was important to get meanwhile use on the site – either in this building or in another, and he was working to make this happen.

We concluded by talking about what conversations needed to take place next. Chris said he felt a key issue in working with any partner was shared values (sustainability etc) and that there was a need to work together all the way through the process – so engaging on developing a joint brief which fitted with their approach to construction would be essential. Ian discussed the contractual basis which starts with Homes England’s standard framework (basically requiring developers to be on a register) but he said he was keen to be flexible in ways that allowed innovation. Ian said he was very open to a community coming forward with an idea for what they need and say “this solves your community-led problem and takes it to the next level”.

Phil gave a brief update on the YoCo bid for £10k start-up funding which had been successful, so the group now has some money to fund technical and legal support, fact-finding etc. We would collectively look at how to use this to move things forward. Imelda will be in touch with people about how they want to be involved.

Thanks again to everyone who took part, and to Helen for setting up the event and chairing it. We will be running a second online workshop next Tuesday 24th March at 4:00pm with Neil Murphy from TOWN and (hopefully, again) Ian Gray.