A much-debated housing development in York is finally beginning to take shape. MATT CLARK takes a look round Derwenthorpe’s new show home.

IT HAS been a choppy eight years, but in all that time Nigel Ingram has never faltered in his dream to provide York with a New Earswick for the 21st century.

Today the waters are calmer and opinions about Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust’s project appear to be turning.

Judging by the hordes visiting the show home on its opening day last Friday, many of the doubters’ worries have been dispelled. By lunchtime, half-empty bottles of champagne suggest some had already put money where their mouth is, signing up to this brave new world of family living.

At the heart of Derwenthorpe is Joseph Rowntree’s ethos for his model village, one that has hardly changed in a century, but it comes with a caveat.

Rowntree wrote that, “The world will look different in ways I can’t imagine and you must adapt”.

This is ably demonstrated at Derwenthorpe, the trust’s new model village being built on the eastern edge of York and based on principles set for New Earswick, where managers would live harmoniously alongside workers.

Almost half of the 540 new homes are intended to be within the reach of households on average incomes, with 135 homes to rent, 81 for part-ownership and others designed for disabled and elderly people.

“There is a lot of evidence from Joseph Rowntree Foundation research that says a mixture in incomes and tenures has more long term durability for social sustainability,” says Nigel. “And as Seebohm Rowntree found, if you are not in appropriate housing, it can affect your health, economic mobility and education.”

But the world has changed, so the homes have been designed to set a benchmark for 21st century eco-development, using radical technology, much of it never seen before in the region.

Features include rainwater harvesting and modern insulation methods. To keep the carbon footprint as small as possible, hot water and heat will be provided by a central biomass boiler.

“Rather than putting eco bling on the house, such as wind vanes and solar panels, we’re asking them to be like a Thermos flask,” says Nigel. “The key is for the houses not to leak; that way they will cut fuel bills by half.”

But that could also cause a problem. Make the house too airtight and mould will appear. So the roof contains a heat-recovery system that draws moist air from kitchens and bathrooms and ventilates it outside. At the same time cold, fresh air drawn in hits the moist air and is heated.

When complete, the village will be set in 18 acres of parkland, with ponds, mature and newly planted trees, cycle paths, and wildlife conservation areas. The layout is also designed to be pedestrian-friendly, with wide footpaths and ‘home zones’ giving people priority over cars.

Derwenthorpe’s housing stock is designed to be flexible, to suit people with varying needs and lifestyles, which can be easily adapted in future years.

The Kestrel show home is an example in point, being available with five bedrooms, or four with a ready-to-go attic conversion. “If your family grows you often have to buy something else. It’s a deliberate mechanism in this country where we only build homes big enough for people’s current needs.

“I’m not saying it’s something Machiavellian, it depends what you are in it for. But to us it’s a long-term stewardship idea. In a nutshell, we want a home that doesn’t evict you when your circumstances change.”

This is why the attic space in some of the Kestrels is already enabled for conversion to five bedrooms, requiring only a second fix. At the moment though, the houses offer much-needed storage space for smaller families. They can always build upwards in the future.

Nigel says a crucial move was to form a partnership with a volume home builder.

“We chose to work with David Wilson Homes because it’s all right for people like us saying all this, but some would say, ‘They’re one of those think tanks, they would say that.’ “So it’s better for a builder to buy into the idea and them to say it rather than us.”

While the issues concerning environmental sustainability may not have been around when New Earswick was designed, the village’s principle of quality, affordable housing remains as important as ever.

Its eco-development at Elm Tree Mews, opposite the Folk Hall, produced a prototype for Derwenthorpe.

“We did a lot of research into mixed-income communities in the 1980s and 1990s and that has influenced the different house types we have here. But we also found a dearth of research into the built form.

“Builders in this country work to theoretical models. The research we did with Leeds Met and the testing at Elm Tree looked at the whole, not just composite parts.

“It’s not a world builders are used to; it’s like road-testing homes. But now it’s gone national.”

Thorough homework has always been part of the trust’s modus operandi that has not made for plain sailing. Derwenthorpe was bitterly contested for more than a decade by campaigners who were angry at the loss of open space and extra traffic on local roads.

Legal challenges were launched, alongside an investigation by the European Commission into City of York Council’s decision to sell the site to the trust without it going to open tender.

The commission eventually decreed the sale had not complied with EU public procurement rules, but decided not to refer the case to the European Courts.

After all the wrangling, the first foundations were laid last summer, 64 homes are almost ready and the first residents move in next month.

“I was at the public inquiry for six weeks, day in day out,” says Nigel. “They said, ‘Look at all these potential brownfield sites. Since then not one has gone ‘on site’ of any size except Hungate.

“The fundamental point for me and the trust is that we have lost a lot of social cohesion in York with families drifting away, because we haven’t built any affordable family housing of any volume in this city for ten years.

“We’ll get to a crisis point if we don’t stick to our guns.”

New Earswick may have been built to tackle the root causes of social problems, many of which have long been addressed nationally; today, a lack of housing rather than its poor quality is the major concern.

“We thought 100 years later there were still lots of issues and the problem with most four- and five-bed developments is they are very exclusive; you don’t get mixed tenures and two-or three-bed houses.”

“Evidence shows that family accommodation is required and it’s the trust’s job to help bring that about.