Distington Big Local has received funding to submit a planning application for 41 new dementia-friendly homes – they share how thinking big and expert advice is helping to realize local housing need

“We bought the land because we’d have been in a lot of bother if we hadn’t,” laughs Rhoda Robinson, chair of Distington Big Local in Cumbria. She sweeps her arm round a 1.7 acre, roughly rectangular plot that’s enclosed on all four sides – two are flanked by terraced houses, the third by a breeze-block wall, and access to the road sits beyond a messy collection of concrete cubes intended to block joyriders and flytippers from doing their worst.

It’s a large site, and scrubby grass and broken up tarmac make it unprepossessing in the way only land that’s been derelict and unloved for years can look. But there are plans afoot. It will not always be this way.

“This all used to be owned by the British Legion,” explains Ingrid Morris, Distington Big Local’s project manager “There was a building – I’ve been told it was well used for social functions but closed due to lack of support – in the end they demolished it.”

“That was, oh, probably six, maybe seven years ago,” says Robinson. “Then one of our parish councillors saw a tiny wee notice saying the land was going for sale.”

Robinson, a retired nurse, was born in Distington and has lived here almost all her life.

With just 1700 residents, this village has the second smallest population of any Big Local area – but that hasn’t stopped people here thinking big.

With locals not wanting the site to be snapped up by commercial developers – “they wanted it for the village,” says Robinson – Distington Big Local was asked to convene a public meeting to discuss what could be done. Over 60 people turned up. “We knew we had to move quick,” Robinson says.

In the region of eighty thousand pounds of Big Local money secured the site. After the purchase was complete, a more in-depth consultation with the community was needed. “It was sort of backside first, in that usually the idea comes before the search for a suitable piece of land, ” grins Sue Hunter, a resident of six years standing and a partnership member.

The partnership managed to get 75% of the £21,000 cost covered by the Copeland Community Fund and Copeland Borough Council. Knowing that the process needed time and expertise that Big Local volunteers didn’t have, they decided to appoint specialist architects Halsall Lloyd to undertake the research.

“There were various ideas that came out of it,” Robinson recalls. “A swimming pool. Allotments. Astroturf.”

Over time, and as a result of conversations with residents and planners, it became apparent that while there was sufficient affordable housing in the area to accommodate families, two residential care homes for elderly people had recently closed. When a shortlist of possible uses for the site was sent out to residents, and at an open day held to provide more detail about various options, it turned out that housing designed for older people came out as the top choice, with 79% in favour.

“Bill Halsall, one of the partners from Halsall Lloyd, had been working on a design for dementia-friendly housing,” says Hunter. Halsall introduced this idea to the partnership. “And the more we thought about it,” Robinson says, “the more it made sense.”

Guided by Halsall, the partnership started to research the concept of “dementia friendly design” to see if it fitted with their community’s needs.

As well as reading research forecasting that far greater numbers of people will be affected by dementia in coming years, they discovered that in 2013, the government had launched a pilot to explore design innovations for “pioneering care environments”. The result had been to bring dementia awareness to the forefront of planners’, commissioners’ and architects’ minds.

To see dementia friendly design in action, partnership members also visited “Chris and Sally’s House”, an ordinary Victorian terrace in Watford that had been converted using research findings from Loughborough university to meet the needs of residents living with dementia.

“If you walk into one of these houses, you wouldn’t notice anything straightaway,” observes Robinson. “But then you’re pointed out the glass fronted cabinets which means people can see inside. Being able to see the toilet from every room. It’s subtle things like fabric as well: they’d used two-tone block colours on the furniture with the darker colour at the edge of a sofa so someone with dementia who’s confused knows where to sit down.”

“It’s invisible design too, like having stronger joists in case someone needs a hoist later,” adds Hunter. “Lots of natural light for Vitamin D, and low windows so you can see out to green spaces for health and wellbeing.”

Distington Big Local’s successful bid to Homes England for £157,000 will enable them to submit a fully scoped out and designed planning application for 41 new housing units for over 55s, a number of which, the idea is, could be future-proofed in case residents develop dementia or a physical impairment. The final development is likely to be a mixture of supported housing flats and independent-living bungalows.

Of course, Distington Big Local could have opted for an easy life, handed the land over to a housing association and taken a ground rent, “but we hope we can take it to the end,” says Hunter, who chairs the sub-committee leading on the project.“With a community thing like this you take a few steps and then review, to see if we have the capacity,” she adds. “And that’s why we have to take our time about decisions.”

The full build will likely cost around £5 million, the group has been told. “We say it fast!” says Robinson.

But while Hunter acknowledges that everyone in her building sub-group has been on a “very steep” learning curve, these Big Local partnership members don’t appear fazed at the prospect of a project of this size.

“The partnership board has always, says Robinson, been willing to pay for expertise when needed, knowing it will help them make decisions with confidence.”

At a recent meeting, Hunter notes, it was decided to appoint a consultant to look at various options for tenure on the finished development, “to look at what the mix of housing types and financial structure is needed to make it pay.”

The enduring benefit that Big Local money can create for their community, once the million pounds is gone, is at the forefront of all their minds.

“We were told at the beginning that if we played our cards right, we could turn our million into £10 million, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Robinson.

This feature was written by Louise Tickle, our journalist-at-large. If your Big Local has a story you’d like to share, Louise welcomes your ideas. You can contact Louise directly.