THE development of a former middle school 'should be of immense benefit to the Hexham community,' a housing group has said.

The Hexham Middle School site on Wanless Lane, owned by Northumberland County Council, could help to alleviate Hexham's housing crisis, Hexham Community-Led Housing group (HCLH) said.

The council has commissioned a master plan and consultation for the site, which involves assessing the site, its challenges, examining the existing building layout and density, and developing costings and valuations.

HCLH, a not-for-profit group of local people, has spoken with Northumberland County Council about the site and suggested part of the site should be given over to affordable housing, as a start to resolving Hexham’s housing crisis.

The council's initial proposals incorporate exploring housing options, including affordable housing, an extra care scheme and independent supported living bungalows.

The proposed timeline outlines that architectural plans will take shape around February 2024, paving the way for a subsequent public consultation period currently proposed for March 2024.

"The former middle school site could go a long way to alleviate the current housing distress experienced by many local people and serve the town in other ways too. Building and environmental standards must be high," a spokesperson from HCLH said.

Affordable housing, to rent or buy, is in critically short supply in town. Housing provider Karbon Homes said there is a 'high' and 'increasing' demand for social housing in and around Hexham.

At a HCLH consultation meeting, Cat Bell, who lives in the east of Hexham, described how both her daughters, wanting to stay close to family and friends, had to move away from Hexham to find good homes they could afford.

A spokesperson from HCLH said: "This is a unique opportunity for the County Council to listen to local people and be truly creative in its planning. Hexham people must be aware of the different possibilities for the site’s use before they can express a knowledgeable view. That process is starting."

In 2016, a Hexham housing need assessment as part of the town's Neighbourhood Plan concluded that 340 new affordable homes should be built over five years in Hexham to meet the backlog of current and future housing needs. However, HCLH said only 34 homes were built in this timeframe, amounting to 10 per cent of what was stated in the assessment.

Castles and Coasts Housing Association performed a similar housing needs assessment in 2022, in support of an affordable homes development on the north side of Corbridge Road. According to Castles and Coasts, the overall housing need increased in Hexham to 540 new homes, amounting to 108 per annum over the next five years.

Castles and Coasts' research also revealed that 400 people left Hexham for housing reasons in the previous five years.

HCLH has conducted two face-to-face consultations to hear the views of local people. County Councillor Colin Horncastle, who represents South Tynedale on Northumberland County Council and is cabinet member for Looking after our Environment, attended the second consultation about the site.

Cllr Horncastle said the Tyne Valley 'desperately' needs more affordable housing, adding: "It is my aim to maximise affordable housing on the middle school site as much as possible."

The two consultations have revealed a strong consensus in favour of affordable housing for residents.

The site is close to the town centre and, with a good number of new homes, HCLH said it would significantly improve footfall and the financial viability of shops and services. 

Consultation feedback found the existing community garden on-site should be retained and could be expanded to provide for new residents. Green space could be preserved for recreation and accessibility improved. Play space was regarded as essential.

Two buildings on the site, one a listed building, could serve many purposes. Residents' ideas included business start-ups, facilities for a town-wide artistic co-operative, new IT-based and media-based businesses and a climbing wall for young people.

County Councillor Wojciech Ploszaj, cabinet member for Supporting Business and Opportunities, said: “The council is committed to providing something really special on this site for all generations of the community, based on the current needs of the local community.

“This includes working closely with Guy Opperman MP, who has been a dedicated advocate for a positive solution for the Hexham Middle School site.

“We will be seeking the views of the local community and the full involvement of all stakeholders with an interest in the site, at the appropriate times.”