VIP, Biscuits: 2 More Refusals For Major Projects In London

Getting messy isn’t it?” was how I ended my 26 January 2019 blog post The Secretary Of State & London.

Two more decisions to note since that blog post:

VIP Trading Estate and VIP Industrial Estate, Charlton

I suspect that this is the first example of a London Mayor calling in an application for his own determination and refusing it. In the final month of his mayorality in April 2016, Boris Johnson had agreed to defer a decision in relation to Bishopsgate Goodsyard, faced with an officer’s recommendation to refuse the application (it ended up never being determined). But Sadiq Khan’s flip flopping over Leopard Guernsey Anchor Propco Limited’s application to the London Borough of Greenwich for planning permission to redevelop the VIP Trading Estate and VIP Industrial Estate, Charlton has been quite something else.

This is a scheme that started off as comprising 975 dwellings , together with non-residential floorspace, in buildings ranging from nine to 28 storeys. Following consultation responses and comments from the Mayor in his stage 1 referral report, the 28 storey tower was removed and the amount of housing reduced to 771.

Greenwich officers recommended approval but on 9 July 2018 committee members resolved to refuse it on five grounds, namely overdevelopment, insufficient proportion of family sized housing, lack of a safe access to the business premises next door (a building known as Imex House that houses Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook’s studio) and introduction of noise sensitive uses, failure to make appropriate replacement employment floorspace provision and daylight/sunlight deficiencies.

Having considered his officers’ stage 2 report dated 13 August 2018, the Mayor called in the application for his own determination. The report sets out the various improvements that would be sought to the proposals as part of the call in process.

Various amendments were negotiated and secured. Officers’ stage 3 report was published for the representation hearing held on 29 January 2019. The report recommended approval.

But then the bombshell at the end of the representation hearing. Despite having intervened to prevent Greenwich members refusing the application against their officers’ recommendations six months previously, and despite amendments to the scheme proposals having been negotiated to officers’ satisfaction, presumably in line with the Mayor’s instructions (if not, was he not paying attention or something?), the Mayor then announces that he is refusing the application. His reasons for refusal published a few days later on 4 February 2019 in part bear a marked resemblance to those of Greenwich’s planning committee: poor design; unsatisfactory relationship with Imex House and introduction of noise sensitive uses; failure to make appropriate replacement employment floorspace provision, and absence of a section 106 agreement to secure affordable housing and other obligations (I’m not sure whether this is a purely procedural reason for refusal or he was actually not satisfied with the affordable package negotiated by his officers: 35%, rising to 40% with grant).

I have no views on the scheme itself, and I accept that of course he must have an open mind during the representation hearing, but what a waste of six months! He says in the letter setting out his reasons for refusal that he “called in this application to subject it to further scrutiny” but that is a poor excuse. He was surely looking to use the particularly useful Mayoral call in power in order to squeeze some further enhancements from the scheme so that, when that had been done by his officers to his satisfaction, he could approve it. In turning it down, where does that leave his officers? And given that applicants are unable to engage with the man himself, can they now be sure that what they are being told by his team is necessary to secure approval will indeed be sufficient?

Bermondsey Biscuit Factory and Bermondsey Campus Site

The decision of the London Borough of Southwark at its planning committee meeting on 6 February 2019 to refuse planning permission for Grosvenor’s 1,342 dwelling build to rent scheme in Bermondsey is another one to be aware of. Members followed the recommendations in the officers’ report, the main reason being that Grosvenor’s affordable housing package was unacceptable, comprising, in summary, that 27.37% of the habitable rooms would be let at an average discount of 25% below market rents, with usual early and late stage viability review mechanisms. (The application indicated that “the depth of discount across the affordable units could vary, with greater discounts offered on some units, but this would require higher rents (up to 80% of market rents) on others to ensure that the overall level of discount does not exceed 25% overall. Grosvenor has described the sum equating to a 25% discount as the ‘subsidy pot’ and suggested whilst this could be distributed in a variety of ways, the impact of the DMR cannot exceed the financial value of that ‘subsidy pot’ “).

The Mayor of London had flagged in his stage 1 report: “Whilst the proposed increase in housing supply is strongly supported, in the absence of an independently verified viability position the proposed 27% provision of affordable housing is unacceptable. The applicant must deliver deeper DMR discounts, including London Living Rent

Southwark took an equivalent position but the report to committee is interesting in the way that it (1) transparently sets out the differences between the viability work carried out by the parties’ respective viability consultants (GVA – in old money, now Avison Young – having advised the council after the publication of the Mayor’s stage 1 report) and (2) highlights the differences in build to rent (referred to as PRS, private rental sector, in the committee report) affordable housing policy approach in two dimensions: at GLA vs borough level, and as between adopted and emerging plans. Not an unfamiliar position for any developer but particularly difficult for those promoting build to rent (which is, after all, strongly supported in principle by MHCLG and the Mayor of London) as a relatively new product in terms of determining the appropriate approach to affordable housing.

The viability differences are nicely summarised by Mike Phillips (ex Property Week editor) in his 4 February 2019 Bisnow piece Grosvenor’s Bermondsey Rejection Is A Microcosm Of London’s Affordable Housing Quandary.

As to the complexities arising from varying policy approaches to build to rent, a few extracts from the committee report:

⁃ “London Plan policies 3.11 and 3.12 and draft London Plan Policy H5 seek to maximise the delivery of affordable housing, with the draft London Plan seeking delivery against a strategic target of 50%. Policy H6 of the draft London Plan and the Affordable Housing and Viability SPG prescribe a threshold approach to affordable housing to incentivise swift delivery, and draft London Plan Policy H13 applies this principle to ‘build to rent’ products. In this case, a minimum of 35% affordable housing threshold applies.

⁃ The Mayor’s affordable housing and viability SPG “recognises that Discount Market Rent is an appropriate tenure within PRS developments and considers that the rent level for DMR should be pegged at London Living Rent levels, for households with incomes up to £60,000. The guidance requires affordable housing to be secured in perpetuity, and in addition requires a clawback mechanism if the wider PRS homes are sold out of the Build to Rent sector within 15 years. The clawback is intended to respond to the different financial model applied to the PRS sector and to ensure the developer does not benefit financially if the homes are converted to market sale.”

⁃ The borough’s core strategy “requires that a minimum 35% affordable housing is provided on all residential developments of 10 or more units, with a tenure split in the Bermondsey area of 70:30 social rent: intermediate homes. Applications would be subject to viability assessments if policy compliance is not being offered, with the expectation that as much affordable housing will be provided as is financially viable. The Core Strategy makes no specific reference to PRS housing.”

⁃ The submission version of the New Southwark Plan “requires the affordable ‘DMR’ housing to be secured in perpetuity, and the overall housing development to be secured within the rental sector for at least 30 years” [contrast with the Mayor’s 15 year requirement] with a changed tenure split of 15% social rent and 20% DMR at London Living Rent [contrast to GLA position where it can all be London Living Rent DMR]

Clearly it is going to be key for the parties to resolve their difficulties over viability, whether that requires changes to the scheme or an appeal. This was a decision taken against up to date government guidance on the approach to viability appraisals, the work was relatively transparent and there was not a major difference of principle over benchmark land value. The reality is that the process is not straightforward; there are issues of judgment, particularly when dealing with a relatively untested business model and the need to estimate the rents that will be achievable in an area that will have been significantly changed by way of development. After that, the tenure split question is surely economically subsidiary, although clearly on-site social rented housing will come at greater cost to the scheme’s viability in a number of ways and so there are political choices to be made.

More widely

I’m not sure whether the Secretary of State had either scheme specifically in mind, when he threw his own political pebble into the pond, as reported in the Planner on 31 January 2019: Brokenshire tells GLA to step up (https://www.theplanner.co.uk/news/brokenshire-tells-gla-to-‘step-up’ ). People in glass houses…

In the meantime, the examination continues into the draft London Plan. Hearing sessions are currently considering housing issues, with MHCLG participating. The Just Space website is a useful unofficial resource in relation to the examination, with links to each written statement for each session together with thumbnail-sketch type notes of the session itself.

Lastly, as a postscript to my 26 January 2019 blog post, it has now been reported that Croydon Council as well as possibly the Mayor are supporting Thornsett Group’s challenge of the Secretary of State’s Purley Baptist Church call-in decision.

Still messy, isn’t it?

Simon Ricketts

Personal views, et cetera

Peek Frean biscuits, from Bermondsey.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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