Lee Mallett writes in ‘Westminster Planning’
“The danger of Westminster’s affordable housing policies, aside from the possibility that such policies throughout London may actually reduce the amount of housing that would otherwise be provided, is that because they almost always result in contributions from developers that are lower than required by policy, they are bringing planning policy into disrepute.
Week after week goes by and at almost every single committee meeting, on almost every application that involves affordable housing there has clearly been a tussle behind the scenes between developers, planning consultants, viability consultants and officers seeking to either maximise or minimise affordable housing contributions. The negotiations will have also been through the cascade of arguments about on-site, off-site, nearby or at some point in the future on an as yet unspecified site. It often involves a sum in-lieu paid into the Council’s affordable housing fund. There then follows the usual tussle at committee and schemes that ostensibly breach policy are approved. The Labour Group has been broadcasting the figures. Quite rightly.
Speak to officers about this and the very staunch line is that every penny of the Affordable Housing Fund is accounted for. But what the public hear, if they choose to listen to what transpires at committee, is that the Council isn’t winning. Take the decision on Crossrail’s Triangle site scheme as an example – that instead of £40m, the council will accept £1m towards affordable housing because of the site’s complexities and because of the way in which the resulting office scheme is likely to be valued by the market. That’s an extreme example, but one that cannot play well with voters no matter how justified by site conditions it may be. It just sounds wrong. A whole new industry has grown up around viability testing, all over the UK. The public and committee members don’t understand the arguments. And if they can’t understand the arguments this leads to a situation where only those who do understand them control the playing field. And that feels undemocratic.
At a recent NLA event looking at housing in London, GLA regeneration and housing chief David Lunts asked the audience if it was time to think about affordable housing policy and to consider whether in their current form such policies where really delivering the goods. The evidence, judging by the revised housing policies proposed by the Mayor calling for 42,000 homes a year, which some think should be more like 60,000 a year, is that the policies are not working. Let’s hope that the Mayor has the courage to revisit the policies and to provide the market with more encouragement to deliver affordable housing. Readers are probably tired of hearing of this view, but if you tax the means of supply, then less of that commodity will be supplied.
If you also build a system so complex to operate that it takes a team of expensive consultants to navigate it, and the result is nearly always an apparent breach of policy, then it must be time to revisit those policies.”