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Land that was left derelict in a Leicester inner-city estate has been transformed into the biggest Passivhaus social housing project in Europe, all thanks to a local community group.

Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Council (SLNC) is based in the deprived Saffron Lane area of Leicester, England. With a Management Committee consisting of local residents and representatives of locally based organisations, SLNC has worked with the local community to create Saffron Heath, an eco-friendly social housing development of 68 new homes providing genuinely affordable housing for its residents. And, with the first residents now moved in and all houses due to be occupied by the end of the year, the group is now planning an additional £1.6m housing project on the same site.

The project is the brainchild of Neil Hodgkin, SLNC’s Head of Development, who 10 years ago had an idea for an urban community farm to grow vegetables for SLNC’s day care service users. From this, Saffron Acres was born, allotments and a community garden which provides education and volunteering opportunities. Now fruit grown on Saffron Acres is being turned into jams and chutneys to be sold as part of a project providing skills training for local unemployed people and adults with learning difficulties.

Determined to rejuvenate the Saffron Lane area of the city, Neil identified housing as a key local issue. As SLNC already provided many different social services to local residents, it then embarked on a lengthy process of consultation with hundreds of local residents about the area’s housing needs before it was successful in acquiring 22 acres of land as an asset transfer from Leicester City Council.

“This was a breakthrough moment in the plan to deliver these eco-friendly homes,” explained Neil. “No other community group has carried out an asset transfer of this size, building this many Passivhaus homes in one place non-commercially and made it work.”

Despite having no experience in managing and delivering housing projects, Neil partnered with Westleigh/EMH Homes to carry out the development. For Neil, it was essential that the Passivhaus environmentally friendly, low-energy model was used to directly benefit residents. Along with the reduced rent costs (about 20% less than the assessed local market value), the air heating system reduces heating bills to around 80% of traditional systems ensuring the new homes offered genuinely affordable housing.

“This project shows that communities can plan, deliver and manage their own housing and address specific wider social needs,” said Neil. “Retaining money within the community to also directly deliver services within the community to help solve local social issues can offer longer-term solutions towards sustainable regeneration of neighbourhoods.”

The benefits of building the development with such a community-centred approach are already being felt by its new residents.

Claire Vickers, 25, moved in with her three young children in September. “The one-bedroom flat we were in before was terrible,” she said. “There was mould on the walls, I lived out of one room and it just wasn’t a safe environment for my children.”

Now, thanks to her new home at Saffron Heath, Claire is focused on a bright new future for her and her children. “We now have room for my children to play and develop. We have our own bedrooms and can even have a dining table to eat together,” she said. “It’s a much better place to bring my children up and we can start a new, better life. We even have a private garden where they are safe and secure.”

For Claire, the fact that the Resource Centre is so firmly integrated with the development is a real benefit. “The Centre has lots of services we can use; we’ve been invited there for morning coffee and my next plan is to see more of what’s in the area and become part of the community. I can start working. I feel like I’ve really landed on my feet. Being here has changed our lives and opened up everything.”

The income generated by the development pays for a worker at SLNC who plays a key role in advising and liaising with the community. Buoyed by the success of the development, Neil and SLNC’s plans for the £1.6m project to build a further 20 housing units on the same site will help to pay for a further two SLNC staff so they can do more work in the community.

They hope to begin building in December 2016 with completion planned for the end of 2017.

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