Oakfield, Swindon by Nationwide Building Society
Shortlisted for Brownfield Awards Category 3 - Best Public Engagement and Participation
A thoughtful approach to house building
Oakfield is a not-for-profit development by Nationwide Building Society. Its aim, to demonstrate a mutual approach to house building by co-creating high quality, sustainable homes with the local community, across market and Affordable tenures. We’re creating a ‘blueprint’ to inspire responsible businesses to develop other difficult sites, to play their part in tackling the UK’s housing crisis. In the east of Swindon, our hometown, we’re building 239 homes on a brownfield site that no other house builder considered viable to develop.
Nationwide may not be the first name on your mind when listing developers. But bringing people together to build better quality homes was the starting point of the Society. And that social purpose of ensuring everyone has a place fit to call home is still our mission today.
Backed by our members we wanted to test a way to encourage new entrants into development, to tackle difficult brownfield sites and increase housing supply with a focus on regeneration and community building.
Working with Swindon Borough Council we identified land, derelict for a decade, three miles from our headquarters. In a deprived area it had been passed over by mainstream house builders who would’ve struggled to balance cost, value, and return with the Council’s 30% Affordable housing standard (which Nationwide will deliver).
Working with Igloo Regeneration, development managers, we’ve created a community focussed approach to development. Construction started on site in April 2020 following an extensive consultation with the community prior to planning approval which we gained in July 2019.
Our approach to public engagement & participation
Guided by seven principles, our community focus has been key throughout each phase of the project.
A report by Demos on People-Powered Planning, supported by Nationwide, found that engagement in the planning system is low and people often feel shut out from decision making. Housing developments too often fail to match the needs and desires of local residents, leading to opposition.
We’re testing a model to challenge those concerns while focussing on the social value the development will create. The foundation of this was to include the community in a genuine and meaningful way.
Getting and keeping people involved:
employing a community organiser
involving the community at the earliest stages of the project
reaching out to a broad range of people
looking for input from people who wouldn’t usually get involved in this type of activity
working on the designs together
being transparent and inclusive
Listen first, design second
Seeing the success some small community-led developments had by using a Community Organising approach, we employed our very own community organiser, Keith Brown to find out what local people, community groups, stakeholders and businesses wanted from, and to genuinely include them in, the development.
In Keith’s words, his aims were:
1. To hear what people value in the community
2. To understand their concerns and the opportunities they have to change things
3. To listen to ideas or concerns
4. To make sure local voices were heard
During the 18 months prior to submitting our planning application, Keith knocked on more than 600 doors, connected with local groups and supported more than 25 events for the community and Nationwide colleagues. And by listening, Keith made sure the community’s voice was truly considered by the design team.
Finding people who won’t always come to you
Keith sought out people who wouldn’t usually take part in consultations, perhaps they didn’t have time, didn’t feel their opinion was valued, or couldn’t physically get there. He was able to gather ideas from people on their way back from the school run, in the queue at the local shop, and during coffee mornings. People locally trusted Keith and valued the time he spent with them.
“I’ve lived here for 25 years and this is the first time I feel involved”
Eileen, local resident from Walcot, Swindon
Getting a range of views
We also undertook structured engagement to complement the community organiser approach. The design team (including lead architects Metropolitan Workshop, landscape architects LUC, and PRP specialists in homes for older people) took part to hear first-hand from locals, coming back time and again to share updated options, listening to reflections and being transparent about anything that couldn’t be incorporated.
Events were held in community spaces in three neighbourhoods as well as ‘pop up’ events outside shops and leisure facilities
Connecting through Keith’s networks with harder to reach communities, e.g. a Nepalese community
Involving Nationwide colleagues who had connections to the area
Online alternatives to face to face events
We invested time in understanding businesses, groups, and local representatives for the area. The local basketball team, the allotment group, schools and Ward and Parish councillors. We maintain these relationships and are working to bring their ideas to life.
We also welcomed and sought out input from experts. Following a query from a local resident who was blind, we met with him and the National Institute for the Blind to discuss their feedback and evolved our design. Inclusivity was high on the feedback from residents too so we also engaged Emma Luddington () to review the accessibility of homes for older people. We also asked for the support of the Swindon Design Review Board to assess the overall scheme.
We asked people “what do you love about the designs?”
“It’s good to see the derelict space being used to create a new community”’
“Commitment to the existing community”’ and “good listening skills”
“Really positive step – consultation with community is key and great that we are doing”
Maintaining community relationships
We keep the 3000 homes closest to the site updated with a quarterly printed newsletter and soon a new website. We also use the newsletter to celebrate community spirit, helping local community groups to promote their work.
Co-creating the design
By listening first, we’ve designed something that local people want on their doorstep. From their involvement the design includes:
a new park and play area, including an outdoor ‘amphitheatre’ for events and a playground made from natural materials, influenced by local schools
improved connectivity between neighbourhoods and shops for cyclists and dog walkers
an amended road layout to allay concerns about a potential rat run
electric car charging points and a car club
shared gardens where neighbours can come together and even grow vegetables in micro allotments
shared space streets to prioritise people first, cars second
a wide range of house types and tenures to cater for the widest, balanced community
homes for older people to ‘age in place’ rather than moving in later life
pepper-potting across the development
a Management Company owned and controlled by the residents to make decisions. Whether you own your home, rent it, or live in affordable housing you as the resident will have a vote to direct the actions of the company.
There were no objections to our planning application. In our view not only is community participation ‘the right thing to do’ it also eradicates planning risk, programme delay and cost overruns – something that would surely appeal to all developers.
“Nationwide Building Society were clear from the start that they wanted their development to
deliver lasting benefits for the local community. They engaged widely and in great depth prior to submitting their planning application. Remarkably for a scheme of this scale, and on a site that is close to established residential communities, no formal objections from local residents were received at the planning application stage. This is unprecedented in Swindon and testament to the excellent community engagement that took place.”
Swindon Borough Council
The difference brownfield development can bring to a community
We found that more than just the ability to influence the design of the new homes, the community organising model started to do something more. Some locals felt so passionately about the opportunities they could see, they applied for funding to start up their own community organiser activity. Keith is helping to train and support them.
Keith continues to work with the community on social action projects like sustainability, traffic and youth activities. And as construction has started, he’s been able to support our construction partner Mi-space to build relationships with the community.
A key element of our procurement process was to make sure our main contractor would support the local area. A training and skills programme set up my Mi-space will mean we can offer job opportunities, work experience and apprenticeships to local people. We work with social enterprises and local supply chains.
Oakfield has gone from being a ‘trouble’ site for locals and a symbol of a neighbourhood being left behind by the market – to a catalyst for community participation and action.
Why promoting brownfield development is important to us
Our community engagement approach is one we think others can borrow from.
We’ve influenced local and national policy makers and key stakeholders such as local MPs, previous Shadow Housing Minister Alex Cunningham MP; Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee Chair Clive Betts MP and Liam Booth Smith and Jack Airey who are both Special Advisers at 10 Downing Street.
We hosted a parliamentary reception with Lord Best OBE DL, Crossbench Peer in February 2020 to share our intentions to create a blueprint for others based on our learnings. Nationwide has called for more to be done to support not-for-profit entrants to the market, supporting the need for a new fund from Homes England.
Working collaboratively with the Council, we created an innovative solution for half of the land value paid to the Council to be reinvested into the local area to tackle some of the issues highlighted during our consultation. And what’s more, our participation model will continue, local people will be able to take part in shaping how this fund is used. A clear benefit of choosing land that wasn’t attractive to the mainstream, that will create real social value through its regeneration.
In a Policy Exchange essay collection, our Chief Product & Marketing Officer, Sara Bennison said
“Too often the housebuilding debate becomes polarised between encouraging the large housebuilders to build more or producing a new generation of council homes. We hope our model can help a wide range of businesses contribute in a practical way to meeting housing challenges.”
Oakfield is our first housing development (at least since our involvement in Letchworth, more than 100 years ago), we’re learning lessons all the time. Some of them will be familiar to colleagues in the wider housing and development industry, some of them will be new. We think our approach to delivering not-for-profit homes is one of those ideas – and, working with Government, we know that other responsible businesses are now considering their own projects – partnering with local authorities and tackling tricky brownfield sites.
The way we’ve engaged with the community has shown that early, authentic and continuous community engagement is not something to be feared, but can improve project outcomes (better places, better homes) and better commercial outcomes (less planning risk and less programme risk).
Oakfield is transforming a derelict and unproductive piece of land into a beautiful new place for a thriving mixed community. The first homes will be ready in 2021, it’s something we’ll feel incredibly proud of – and we want local people to share in that pride with us. Ultimately, it’s theirs.
“By challenging existing practice in just a small way here in Swindon and ensuring the views of locals shape our development, we hope to make an innovative contribution to the national housing debate.”
Joe Garner, Nationwide Building Society, CEO