By Harry Mottram: They’ve ripped out the hedges, felled the trees and left a half completed pavement and entrance to the site on Houlgate Way in Axbridge in Somerset – and now developers Bellway have confirmed they have halted construction for the next few weeks. The reason is due to a slowdown in house purchases across the UK with industry predictions suggesting this year will see a fall in demand and prices of new properties fall by as much as 4% depending on who you ask.

Based in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England and founded in 1946 as a family firm, the company has not been without controversy in 2023 with major job cuts last summer and a somewhat gloomy prediction of their work to develop sites in the UK. They let go 150 staff last year and said that they would trim the number of homes they plan to construct to 7,500 across the country in 2024. The reasons are ones familiar with those who follow the news: high interest rates, inflation still far higher than the desired 2% level, energy cost hikes and the Cost of Living Crisis that has squeezed household budgets. Add to that the soaring costs of building materials and it is no surprise that some workers have been laid off, contractors put on hold and in Axbridge the residents of Houlgate Way treated to the sight of a somewhat decimated field where once cattle grazed – complete with unsightly metal fences.

In a statement requested by Axbridge News Review Bellway confirmed that their new estate in Axbridge will go ahead this spring although there is a delay for now. They said: “Last year, due to challenging marketing decisions at the time, the decision was taken to place a hold on the construction of Bellway’s Lavender Rise Development in Axbridge. Our intention is to continue with our plans for the development, and we can confirm work will resume on the site in March, with the construction of 53, two to five bedroom homes.”

On their website the firm described the development on the south western edge of Axbridge in these words: “Lavender Rise, a superb selection of upcoming 4 and 5-bedroom homes, will be situated in the desirable town of Axbridge. The beautiful homes will be an ideal choice for a range of buyers – including families and first-time buyers – with the proposed development benefitting from proximity to beaches, green spaces, city attractions, and local amenities.”

The trade website Building reported that the firm, which had ‘a pre-tax margin in 2023 of just over 14%, said it expected its margin to sink by around 600 basis points, and that its average sale price would reduce in the year ahead from the £310k reported this year to £295k’, with the reduction “primarily reflecting a higher expected proportion of social housing completions and a continued use of incentives”.

The proposed planning application was in 2020 when councillors in what was then Sedgemoor in Bridgwater voted it through by a margin of 10-2. It was opposed by Cllr Mike Murphy of Burnham-on-Sea who said having 125m distance between the farm and the homes was unacceptable. He said: “Would the planners accept a proposal to build a chicken farm next to a housing estate? No.”

He demanded a site visit before any vote which was ignored. Cllr Revan of North Petherton also opposed the plans at the vote in 2020.

District Cllr Liz Scott raised the issue of extra traffic and the loss of parking spaces in Houlgate Way as well as the ‘high visual effect’ the development would have on the town especially in relation to the Grade II listed Compton House which would be next to the new estate. She raised the issue of land drainage and of a footpath as well as saying that under a Tier 2 settlement all the requirements had to be met which she said had not on a number of levels listing a number of points – all rejected on technicalities by the planning officer.

The then mayor of Axbridge and town councillor Barbara Wells also spoke against the plans. She said at the time: “The offer of a public car park accessed seemingly via the estate to balance the loss of at least 18 on road parking spaces in Houlgate Way will not help with existing parking issues in the Town.”

One of the main objections is the site is outside of the Axbridge settlement boundary and is not allocated for housing within the council’s Local Plan, which runs until 2032. Another issue is the site since 2020 has been sold to Bellway by Hannick. Bellway – the firm is also behind the current development at Helliers Lane in Cheddar.

For the moment there will be a certain amount of peace along Houlgate Way – and in a way the delay in constructing the town’s latest homes reflects the highs and lows of the nation’s financial health in general. Even Axbridge is not immune to the forces of the economy.

The photo shows the field last summer.

AxbridgeNews is edited by Harry Mottram and is published for the interest of himself and fellow residents.

Harry is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc