Bracewell Homes: How has Harrogate council's housing company performed during the pandemic?
When Harrogate Borough Council's commercial housing company launched in 2019 it was hailed as an exciting opportunity to turn the authority a profit and help first-time buyers get a foot on the property ladder.
Two years and a global pandemic later - how is Bracewell Homes performing and is it what the district needed?
Backed by an up to £10m loan from taxpayers, the at arm's-length company was set up to intervene in Harrogate's pricey property market by delivering desperately needed rental and shared ownership homes which are affordable to low-income earners.
And with around 1,700 households currently in the queue for social housing and the district remaining as one of the most unaffordable places to live in England, the scale of the task at hand could not be clearer.
That is why councillor Pat Marsh, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat group on Harrogate Borough Council believes the company should be setting much more ambitious targets than its initial aim to deliver 40 properties by 2024.
Bracewell Homes has so far hit 14 properties either sold or nearing completion but councillor Marsh said this figure needed to be reaching the "hundreds" if the district is to ever become a place where many low-income earners can afford to call it their home.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, she said: "Forty homes in three years will barely make a dent in the need for the 1,700 on the waiting list, some living in very difficult circumstances.
"We cannot continue to rely on affordable housing being delivered by developers, they are a part of the solution but until they start to develop their land the supply will not be kept at a level required."
A council spokesperson previously said while Bracewell Homes had a successful launch, the delivery of properties had been "slightly slower than anticipated".
In August last year, senior councillors agreed to purchase 52 homes in Pannal Ash at a cost of £4.5m with 16 of the properties to be sold under shared ownership by Bracewell Homes and the rest made available for social rent.
The company had also earmarked other sites in the district to develop, including Frogmire in Knaresborough.
As well as shared ownership and rental properties, councillor Mike Chambers, the council's cabinet member for housing and safer communities, said the company also saw the renovation of existing properties as a way of improving the prospects of people being able to buy their own home.
His comments come after the Local Democracy Reporting Service last month revealed that 774 homes across the district have sat empty for more than six months, prompting calls for greater action to bring vacant properties back into use.
Councillor Chambers said: “We want to do everything we can to ensure local people have the opportunity of a decent and affordable home in the Harrogate district.
“We know getting a foot on the housing ladder in the Harrogate district can be a challenge.
"That’s why we have established Bracewell homes to acquire shared ownership homes, renovate existing properties and/or sites for development, as well as owning and letting rental properties.
“By doing all this we can be confident that the homes provided by Bracewell Homes are of a high quality, fit for purpose and will allow local people to stay local in the future.
“Any financial return can be invested back into providing more high quality homes and council services.”
When Bracewell Homes launched, it was agreed that the company would be shut down if it were to run at a loss and waste taxpayers' money.
A council spokesperson said while the company's 2020/21 accounts were still being finalised following the end of the financial year, the profit after tax figure for 2019/20 was £129,953.
They also said the company had another 25 properties in the pipeline over the next year and on top of the 14 homes already delivered.
Despite the profits and seemingly on target delivery figures, councillor Marsh repeated her belief that Bracewell Homes should be setting far loftier ambitions if it is to have a major impact on the housing market, as she also said a different approach with a greater focus on construction could be taken altogether.
She said: "We Lib Dems were first to push for a housing company with the hope to create a company that would build social housing as many other local authorities had done. We were very shocked to learn once it had been set up that they could not be proactive and build social housing.
"The disappointment with Bracewell Homes is the emphasis, at the moment, on building homes to sell at market prices to get a commercial return on money invested.
"Maybe there is a need to look at two companies - one commercial and one for social housing.
"We would have liked them to look at lifting the borrowing cap on the housing revenue account, as many councils have done, to start a very proactive social housing building programme.
"We need Bracewell homes to set targets to achieve hundreds of houses per year otherwise this crisis will never come to an end."
Snapshot: Harrogate's unforgiving housing market
The coronavirus pandemic has caused an unprecedented economic shock across the UK, closing businesses and putting people out of work.
But despite this, house prices are on the up – even in areas where there has been a drop in sales.
In Harrogate, average house prices last year reached £331,580 according to latest figures from estate agents Hamptons.
That figure is around 11 times greater than the average annual income of workers in our area.
Government pledges to boost affordable housing have been redoubled by Harrogate Borough Council which set out in its Local Plan that almost 4,400 affordable homes are needed over the 2014-2035 plan period.
To hit this target, the council has promised to put pressure on housing developers to bring forward more lower-cost homes at building sites across the district.
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter