Builder targets eco village bonanza
Howard Cook has turned his farm into a utopia, but planners are about to rule on whether he can expand Ponderosa. Sharon Dale reports.
ONE plan led to another for Howard Cook, the down-toearth Yorkshire builder who is now the ruler of a remarkable fiefdom.
Ponderosa, named after the ranch in TV’s Bonanza, began when Howard, 66, bought a 50 acre dairy farm in his hometown of Heckmondwike in 1988.
He made the farmhouse his home and the outbuildings the HQ for his successful construction company, before a “Eureka” moment when he decided that his land could be used as a resource for people with disabilities.
His parents helped establish the local MENCAP branch and he was familiar with the needs of those with learning difficulties.
So he created greenhouses where they could learn horticul- tural skills and later installed a sewing workshop.
Ponderosa Therapeutic Centre was born and funded partly with profits from his construction company, he expanded into a rare breeds animal area tended by the students.
Next came Ponderosa Park, lakes, a visitor centre and restaurant where local families enjoy days out.
He also built a business centre on a former scrap yard at the edge of his land.
It all adds up to quite an achievement and won Howard an MBE for his efforts.
“I’ve got lots of ideas. I was sat watching the families here one day and thought: ‘I bet they’d really like to be at the seaside’, so we got 200 tons of play sand and made a beach. It’s been a big success,” says Howard, who has been rewarded with scores of success stories for his work with disabled and disenfranchised people some of whom he now employs full-time.
I’m out working from 7am till 9.30pm and everything I’ve ever made has gone back into Ponderosa.
But his latest vision, a plan to create the country’s first eco friendly retirement village on his land, is attracting support and opposition in equal measure.
The joint venture with Retirement Villages UK looks impressive with 180 retirement homes, a 40 bed carehome for the elderly and 44 starter homes.
The zero carbon properties, designed by Cartwright Pickard, will have green walls and roofs, solar panels, air source heat pumps and allotments. Energy will be provided by a bio fuel generator and the wood pellets harvested from woodland at Ponderosa, which will be criss- crossed with cycle paths and footpaths.
Howard has also come up with the idea of making contractors involved in the village, everyone from architects to builders and marketing companies, create apprenticeships.
“Creating apprenticeships would be a condition of getting a contract and we think there would be 200 apprenticeships out of this scheme,” he says.
“At the moment there is no incentive for firms to give apprenticeships but they would be happy to do so if it meant winning a contract. I also think this could work nationally.”
But critics say the village encroaches on green belt and planners are bound to take their concerns into account.
“There is some green belt but most of the development is on old sewage works and the site of an old quarry,” says Howard, who came up the retirement village idea after his aunt went into a nursing home.
“It hit me hard and I started to think about a better alternative. Retirement homes that people can buy and downsize to freeing up family sized homes make sense.
“When the owners are unable to cope in their own home, they can move to a care home on the same site.
“It’s a sustainable community and the plans will help regener- ate the area and provide employment,” says Howard, who thinks the retirement houses will cost around £200,000 each.
Planners will decide whether his dream can become a reality next month and he’s preparing to put up a fight.
He has spent over 20 years creating Ponderosa rather than enjoying the trappings of wealth and is keen to move on to the next stage.
“I’m out working from 7am till 9.30pm and everything I’ve ever made has gone back into Ponderosa. I live in the farmhouse here and I’ve got a nice car and that’s it. This is my life,” he says.
After Princess Anne visited the site, a lady-in-waiting wrote to him: ”What an amazing place and a credit to your passion, perseverance and hard work and probably down right doggedness.
“Her Royal Highness feels that it is just the start of your adventure judging by your enthusiasm and ideas and she sends her best wishes for your future projects.”
If he doesn’t get planning permission, he still has a host of other ideas including a military museum as a resource for school children, and a mini Eden project and more workshops for his disabled clients.
“It’s all about joined up thinking,” he says.
For more details on plans for Ponderosa retirement village, visit www.ponderosapark.co.uk/village/
APPLICATION: An artist’s impression of the eco village at Ponderosa in Heckmondwike.
ACHIEVEMENT: Howard Cook.