Red Lodge, in Suffolk, is a curious place. A trucker's pitstop close to Newmarket, it has a strangely Wild West frontier town air, compounded by the local US air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath.
Still, it's close to the M11 and A14 roads, taking traffic from East Anglia to London and the Midlands, and close to the growth zones of Cambridge and Peterborough. Plus, there's access to the bracing heathlands of east Suffolk, where buzzards fly over gorse and Scots pines.
Just the place for a development of new-build homes, then, so when, a decade ago, a development at the northern end of Red Lodge called Kings Warren was planned by Crest Nicholson, with 1,250 homes built by four homebuilders and promising "first class local facilities", few complained. What could go wrong?
Lots, says the local resident Lisa Rothwell, who bought her £200,000 house in 2008 with her husband, Gary, to be near Newmarket, where both of them work in the racing industry. "People are calling it 'Dead Lodge' and a 'ghost town'," she says. "It should be thriving, but it isn't." The promised pavilion, sports fields and school remain undelivered, roads remain unadopted. At the playground, which hasn't been handed over for use, Rothwell says that kids had to break in – so that they could play. There is a red postbox: "But we only got that after complaining a lot," adds Rothwell. "They should have made the infrastructure. I'm worried – we've got all our life savings wrapped up here."
There's no public transport, no shops, but plenty of wire fencing and the strange virtual-reality atmosphere engendered by lots of new, empty houses – about 880 have been built so far. "There's nothing here," says the resident Deborah Bull, a midwife's doula, who moved to Red Lodge in 2008 from London. "It's certainly not the dream that David Wilson Homes sold us. Now, they're telling me that we're living on a building site, as if it's our fault."
A walk around the area on a summer evening reveals plenty of new empty-looking homes, some of which have signs saying they are occupied. On a wire fence in front of an empty field is the legend "Contemporary Family Living". "That's where the school is supposed to be built," says Rothwell, pointing to the muddy gap. "No sign of it yet." The development has the air of an English remake of The Truman Show, an illusion that must be maintained. Indeed, prior to the filming of a local television report, Bull claims that she saw builders taking "to let" signs down at a David Wilson Homes site. A spokeswoman for the company cannot confirm or deny it, referring to Crest Nicholson as the company that should be answerable for any shortcomings in Kings Warren.
As an investor into the Kings Warren dream, Rothwell is angry. "It's already attracting vandals, and lorry drivers park up and sleep here," she says. "It's particularly disappointing, as Kings Warren was going to get rid of Red Lodge's stigma." There are too many houses, too few buyers – and even the "affordable" social housing is unoccupied. "In March 2009 they finished off the affordable housing and these homes are still empty," says Bull. "There are apparently plenty of people on the housing register in Newmarket. Why don't they want to move here?" A spokeswoman for Forest Heath says that the local authority homes in Kings Warren have been filled, but that shared-ownership homes remain empty.
Lisa Chambers, a Conservative councillor for the local authority, Forest Heath, and a Red Lodge resident, is more circumspect, but shares the fears of Bull and Rothwell. "Red Lodge was a village with no infrastructure and had grown up without various things," she says. "So the idea that it would gain these amenities was very attractive. The development was very much embraced by the community."
That early promise hasn't come to fruition, she says, partly due to the recession, but possibly also due to over-optimistic planning. "Of course, the recession is partly to blame and people are still reluctant to move," says Chambers. But she adds that that the boom-time projections haven't been borne out. "The development hasn't produced as many children as we expected," she says. "We're seeing retired people and young couples. It's a different mix than we expected." There are generous buyers' incentives, and some have invested in rental property, given that there is a demand from the US air force sites. But tellingly, Chambers says that the social tenants are being invited to move to Red Lodge from Birmingham and Liverpool, which she says "must be quite a challenge for them".
The "Dead Lodge" effect was thrown into relief by the Earl of Derby's application to build more than a thousand houses on the edge of nearby Newmarket, recently overturned after activism by Rachel Hood and SHNAG (Save Historic Newmarket Action Group). "We didn't see why more houses were needed when Red Lodge is under-occupied," says Hood.
So the question remains: is Kings Warren merely immature? Or is it the wrong place, at the wrong time, or even indicative of an over-supply of new-builds in some growth zones across the UK? "I think it shows that we seriously need to review the housing figures from the Labour years and look at how they were calculated," adds Chambers. The whole statistical basis for the construction boom – augmented by Gordon Brown's 2007 pledge to bring three million new homes by 2020 – needs to be rethought. "I also think we need to consider where houses are planned," she says. The new Government's plan to devolve decision-making powers on housing and planning from regional strategies to local councils may well have an effect on the future of Kings Warren-type developments.
Crest Nicholson, while optimistic, seems to tacitly acknowledge that there have at least been teething problems, if not the "Dead Lodge" effect, in a statement: "Although the recession has impacted on developments across the country to a varying degree, Larks Reach, Crest Nicholson's latest phase of new homes at Kings Warren near Red Lodge, has continued to attract buyers, with sales levels increasing in recent months," it read. "Furthermore there is also strong rental demand at the site from which investors continue to generate attractive yields. Crest Nicholson is in the process of finalising its obligations with regards to public amenities and is proactively working with the council to make sure that the remainder is delivered."
A spokeswoman for Forest Heath district council adds: "There are houses empty in Red Lodge, and we're aware of the problem. And it's true that the infrastructure has been slow. But an awful lot of people still want to live in Red Lodge." She cites the "brilliant" communications, an impending industrial zone, beautiful countryside and shopping in Newmarket and Cambridge. What's more, the developers are still building. "And why would they do that if the houses weren't selling?"
Still, it's difficult not to see Kings Warren and Red Lodge as a possible casualty of the Noughties spike: a village of 1,250 houses that looked like a great idea on the drawing board of the property boom, and which is now struggling to acquire the parts that add up to a proper settlement. As to Bull and Rothwell, they're bitterly resigned. "We're stuck living in a ghost town whether we like it or not," says Bull. "There's little we can do apart from try and get the developer and the local authority to turn Kings Warren into a place worth living in."Reuse content