In requiring the developers of private housing schemes to contribute to the provision of affordable housing, the planning system has become a tax collection system, and an inefficient, opaque one at that.
The OECD classifies taxes as follows:
“… compulsory, unrequited payments to general government. Taxes are unrequited in the sense that benefits provided by government to taxpayers are not normally in proportion to their payments.
The term “tax” does not include fines unrelated to tax offences and compulsory loans paid to government. […]
General government consists of supra-national authorities, the central administration and the agencies whose operations are under its effective control, state and local governments and their administrations, social security schemes and autonomous governmental entities, excluding public enterprises.”
Participants in the planning system seem to accept the political policy choice that has been made: to require developers to subsidise the provision of affordable housing, whether by requiring them to dispose of land or built units to registered affordable housing providers at less than market value (and nowadays at less than cost, given the increasing scarcity of any public sector grants or other forms of subsidy) or to make financial payments towards the provision of affordable housing elsewhere in the area.
The provision of market housing does not in any way increase the need for affordable housing, indeed over time by increasing supply if anything it should decrease it. It may be said that mixed use communities can only be achieved by requiring the inclusion of affordable housing within market residential schemes, but that in itself does not justify the state putting the cost of the affordable housing at the door of the developer. The only reason that affordable housing section 106 planning obligations meet the requirements of regulation 122 of the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010 (necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms; directly related to the development; and fairly and reasonably related in scale and kind to the development) is because of local policies seeking such obligations, supported by national policy. Policy could have easily required development across the board to contribute to affordable housing – or another category of development other than market housing. Why shouldn’t we use plain language and describe the extent of subsidy on each scheme as a tax? Hypothecated it may be but it still surely meets that OECD definition. For the rest of this post I will refer to it as Affordable Housing Tax, AHT.
How to calculate AHT? Frequently, the high proportion of affordable housing that is required to be provided in connection with a private market housing development, when taken with the other costs of that development (including CIL where chargeable, a more straight-forward and transparent tax – that’s how bad AHT is!), would render the project unviable and so AHT ends up being as much as can be extracted from a development whilst allowing it to go ahead, assuming a fixed capped profit level for the developer and a fixed capped land value for the land owner (often less than its “real” value or actual acquisition cost).
Take London. The London Plan requires boroughs to seek to maximise affordable housing provision. The current Mayor has indicated that his “long-term aim is for half of all new homes to be affordable”. In his November 2016 draft affordable housing and viability SPG (the subject of my 1.12.16 blog post ), he introduced a ‘threshold approach’, whereby schemes meeting or exceeding 35% (by habitable room) affordable housing without public subsidy will not be required to submit viability information. There are also minimum requirements as to the proportions of different types of affordable housing that will be required (“tenure split” in the affordable housing industry jargon that we have grown up with). For schemes that cannot meet the threshold, viability appraisal is required to justify how much affordable housing the scheme can deliver.
Imagine such a concept in any other sector:
1. The market produces goods which reduce the need for the state to provide a service, or which are at least neutral.
2. The market is taxed on those goods, with the tax applied towards provision of that service, instead of that service being paid for by the state.
3. The level of that tax differs according to location but will often equate to all profits arising from the production of the goods, less a capped profit and capped input cost.
I’m expressing no view as to whether this process is right or wrong. However, I do feel that the underlying reality has been conveniently forgotten. And the collateral damage from AHT is:
1. loading complexity into the planning process, with local planning authorities having to fulfil both a tax assessment and tax collection role
2. encouraging bad outcomes, with developers incentivised to expend resources on AHT mitigation (complex affordable housing negotiations, arguments over tenures, viability appraisal)
3. reducing housing delivery by rendering some projects unviable.
How did we get here? There is an interesting 2002 study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “Planning gain and affordable housing: making it count”, which starts with this brief history:
“Local authorities had been experimenting with ways of using the planning system to secure affordable housing in a number of areas in England in the 1970s, but official government endorsement first came in 1979 when the rural exceptions policy was announced. This enables rural planning authorities to grant planning consent for housing on sites that would not otherwise receive permission, provided that only affordable housing is developed on them.
The approach was more widely sanctioned to enable affordable housing to be secured on all larger housing developments in 1981 and subsequently included in all Planning Policy Guidance on housing (PPG3) issued since then (DETR, 2000). Provided that local planning authorities have policies in their adopted statutory development plans that assess the need for new affordable housing in their districts, they may require private developers to contribute to meeting this need. They may also set specific targets to be achieved on sites allocated for new housing in adopted plans. When developers agree to make contributions these are made legally binding contracts, where they enter into agreements with the relevant planning authority under section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act as part of the process of securing planning permission.”
“In 1998, the policy was amended, to reduce site thresholds above which contributions would normally be sought, and to link it more closely with the government’s policies on social inclusion, mixed communities and urban renaissance through on-site provision of affordable housing (DETR, 1998). In the 2000 version of PPG3, the government made it clear that developers’ unwillingness to make contributions to affordable housing would be an appropriate reason, of itself, to refuse planning permission (DETR, 2000).
In the 2001 Green Paper on reform of the planning system the government proposed widening the scope of the affordable planning policy to incorporate small sites and commercial developments. It also proposed replacing negotiated contributions by standard authority- wide financial tariffs, which would still mainly be used for on-site provision. (DTLR, 2001a, 2001b).”
In my view, a significant turning point was paragraph 38 of PPG3 (1992): “A community’s need for affordable housing is a material consideration which may properly be taken into account in formulating development plan policies.”
This from an interesting 26 October 2011 paper by Tim Mould QC:
“At the time, the introduction of that policy provoked considerable controversy in planning circles. In Mitchell v Secretary of State, Roy Vandermeer QC sitting as a deputy High Court Judge held that a planning appeal decision based upon considerations of housing price and tenure was unlawful, on the ground that such considerations had nothing to do with the character and use of land. Had that view prevailed, the now conventional approach to delivering affordable housing through the planning process would have been dead in the water, considerations of price and tenure being part and parcel of the means whereby affordable housing is actually secured through the development control process.
That view did not, however, prevail. The Court of Appeal overturned Mr Vandermeer’s decision. In Mitchell v Secretary of State  2 PLR 23, Saville LJ said (page 26G-H) :
“On the law as it presently stands, therefore, the need for housing in a particular area is a planning purpose which relates to the character and use of land. Given that this is so, the proposition advanced on behalf of Mr Mitchell is that the need for a particular type of housing in an area is not a planning purpose which relates to the character of the use of land if that need is itself dictated or generated by considerations of cost or type of tenure.
I cannot accept this argument. To my mind there is no sensible distinction to be drawn between a need for housing generally and a need for particular types of housing, whether or not the latter can be defined in terms of cost, tenure or otherwise. In each case the question is whether, as a matter of planning for the area under consideration, there is a need for housing which the grant or refusal of the application would affect.
The fact that the need may be dictated by considerations of cost or type of tenure seems to me to be immaterial…. ….the fallacy in the argument is that it simply confuses the need for housing (which on the authorities is a legitimate consideration) with the reasons for that need and concentrates exclusively on the latter while effectively ignoring the former. ”
Thereafter the national planning policy for the delivery of affordable housing through the planning process became encapsulated in a departmental circular devoted to that topic – DETR Circular 6/98 “Planning and Affordable Housing“. Building on the established materiality of the need for affordable housing, paragraph 1 of the circular required local planning authorities to investigate the degree of need for affordable housing in their area and, based on that evidence, to include in their local plans a policy for seeking an element of such housing on suitable sites. Such policies would then be material consideration in determining an application for planning permission.”
Tim then points to PPS3 (2005), which is even more specific as to what was required from developers: “planning authorities were required to set overall targets for affordable housing during the plan period based on (inter alia) the findings of a Strategic Housing Market Assessment; to include separate targets for social rented and intermediate housing; to specify the size and type of affordable housing likely to be needed in particular locations; to set out the range of circumstances in which affordable housing would be required; and to set out the approach to seeking developer contributions towards affordable housing provision in their area. There was further guidance on the provision of affordable housing in rural areas.”
As we then move forward to the publication in 2012 of the NPPF, the references to seeking developer contributions to affordable housing are lost. Not because the approach has changed but because by now this is just the system, isn’t it?
The NPPF simply says this about affordable housing, para 50:
“To deliver a wide choice of high quality homes, widen opportunities for home ownership and create sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities, local planning authorities should:
* plan for a mix of housing based on current and future demographic trends, market trends and the needs of different groups in the community (such as, but not limited to, families with children, older people, people with disabilities, service families and people wishing to build their own homes);
* identify the size, type, tenure and range of housing that is required in particular locations, reflecting local demand; and
* where they have identified that affordable housing is needed, set policies for meeting this need on site, unless off-site provision or a nancial contribution of broadly equivalent value can be robustly justified (for example to improve or make more effective use of the existing housing stock) and the agreed approach contributes to the objective of creating mixed and balanced communities. Such policies should be sufficiently exible to take account of changing market conditions over time“
Similarly, there is the assumption in the Government’s 2014 planning practice guidance, along with specific references later introduced into the document as to the circumstances in which affordable housing requirements should not be sought (reflecting the 28 November 2014 written ministerial statement that set out the small sites threshold and the vacant building credit).
Throughout this period the availability of public subsidies to support the delivery of affordable housing has reduced.
What an example of mission creep all of this is. How enticing for successive governments to restrict general taxation by progressively increasing the burden of paying for affordable housing onto private sector residential development.
The political sleight of hand goes further: recognising the financial impact that this responsibility places on residential development, beneath the headline proportions of affordable housing that are sought, the definition of affordable housing has been adjusted to the disadvantage of those in most need of it:
– first with the introduction of affordable rent rather than social rent (see the House of Commons Library briefing paper dated 7 May 2015), affordable rent being a reduction of at least 20% on market rent as opposed to social rent’s generally lower, fixed rent, levels
– more recently with consultation on widening the definition of affordable housing to include “starter homes” and also, for build to rent development, discount market rent (see my 4.3.17 blog post).
One advantage of calling a tax a tax would be that we could then have an honest conversation as to whether it is right that CIL always has priority over AHT. That 15% of CIL that is for neighbourhoods to apply (25% where a neighbourhood plan is in place) – can’t AHT take priority over that? Indeed, given that neighbourhood slice doesn’t even have to be spent on the provision of infrastructure (but on either “the provision, improvement, replacement, operation or maintenance of infrastructure” or “anything else that is concerned with addressing the demands that development places on an area”), why not advise that in areas of particular need of affordable housing the neighbourhood slice should automatically go toward affordable housing?
Of course the very term “affordable housing” is politician-speak. After all, all housing is affordable to some and unaffordable to others. Don’t we really mean “subsidised housing”, “low income housing” or “public housing”? I’m surprised indeed we haven’t yet seen it rebranded as “community housing”.
But what other approach could be taken to securing it, other than the present one?
An interesting exercise would be to calculate, nationally or authority area by authority area, the annual level of AHT that is secured from developers by way of section 106 obligations (some useful national figures to begin with are within Annex A of the Government’s May 2016 starter homes consultation paper) and then to work out what that might equate to if it became an across the board (all development, not just housing) CIL-type charge. As I say, why should the cost of affordable housing solely fall on residential development? Indeed, arguably it is employment development that adds more directly to the need for homes.
Indeed, as part of any review of CIL, doesn’t the concept of a Community Housing and Infrastructure Levy, or CHIL, have a ring to it?
Furthermore, whilst there is a much bigger role for local authorities to play in delivering affordable housing, direct and in conjunction with registered providers and the private sector (and potentially with a greater focus on neighbourhood, community, participation in delivery and management), why not turn the system on its head and boost production by making it positively in the developer’s interest to deliver affordable housing, through offering tax credits? This has been the US model, via the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), ironically now under threat due to Trump’s proposed tax changes (see for example Bloomberg piece Trump Corporate Tax Shakeup Puts Housing Developers in Tailspin 26 April 2017).