“Nothing was delivered/And I tell this truth to you/Not out of spite or anger/But simply because it’s true” (Bob Dylan)
It was the first meeting on 5 February of the prime minister’s housing implementation taskforce. The subsequent press statement summarises the event as follows:
“Today the Prime Minister chaired the first meeting of the Housing Implementation Taskforce at Downing Street.
She stressed the integral role all Government departments have in helping to fix the broken housing market and deliver 300,000 additional homes by the mid-2020s.
The taskforce discussed the steps Government has already taken, including further investment at the Budget, planning reform, releasing land faster, the Housing White Paper and building more affordable housing. They emphasised the key role of Homes England in driving forward change, and also focused on the supply of new housing, public sector land sales, land banking, house-building skills and building the infrastructure needed for new housing developments.
The Prime Minister reiterated that a step change was needed right across Government and that all departments needed to think creatively about how they can contribute to building the homes the country needs.”
That “300,000 additional homes by the mid-2020s” reference is an interesting one, reflecting the Government’s previous 11 January 2018 announcement of the creation of Homes England:
“Homes England will play a major role in fixing the housing market by helping to deliver an average of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.”
This is surely a tactical step back from the Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto commitment, with no longer any pre-2022 election target:
“We will meet our 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and we will deliver half a million more by the end of 2022.”
A significant proportion of the country’s homes will need to come forward in London – the Mayor of London’s draft London Plan sets a target of around 65,000 homes a year, a significant increase from the previous plan figure of 42,000.
These figures are only going to be achieved with a large degree of consensus between central government, the Mayor, boroughs and local communities. If I were prime minister (perish the thought) I would be worrying that in many areas, but particularly in London, there is increasing “spite or anger” (in the words of Mr Dylan). Inevitably, in any year with borough elections, planning becomes politicised but this year, with the repercussions of the Grenfell tragedy, the predictions of Conservative council losses and the internal battles within the Labour party, this is particularly so. EG has tracked the number of refusals in London up to the end of 2017. It makes for uncomfortable reading and the position will only be worsening.
Anecdotally, many developers and authorities are keeping politically controversial decisions away from committees until the other side of the 3 May local government elections, even though the formal purdah rules, summarised in a useful Local Government Association guide, largely allow for statutory processes to carry on.
The politically charged atmosphere in many boroughs isn’t just leading to refusals of permission against officers’ recommendations – leading in turn to officers having to spend time defending appeals, with inevitable repercussions for capacity to cope with other applications in the system – but it’s impeding the work of boroughs that seek to achieve housing development, particularly in relation to estate regeneration schemes, without which those London numbers are not going to be met.
Progress on the Haringey Development Vehicle initiative, brought forward by Haringey Council with private sector joint venture partner Lendlease, has now been halted by leader councillor Claire Kober, with no further decisions to be taken before purdah commences on 26 March until after the 3 May local election. Given that, following sustained pressure over the project, she announced on 30 January that she will not be standing for re-election, its long term future may be in doubt. This was a strategy to bring about widespread development on sites in the council’s ownership, including the proposed delivery of up to 6,400 homes. The HDV would in due course formulate development proposals for sites and make planning applications, applications which would be assessed as against planning policy, with the power for the Mayor to intervene in the usual way, but plainly in Haringey even the nature of the vehicle to be used to bring about development, presumably because of the role to be played in it by a private sector developer, was seen by objectors as unacceptable.
There is room for debate in a democracy as to the form that regeneration should take and the extent and types of affordable housing to be provided but if the HDV is not to happen, what will? In current political and financial reality, my fear is that an opportunity to increase housing at scale, including affordable housing, will be lost. It is vital that affordable housing, with tenures to meet needs, is provided. Will the collapse of the HDV render this more or less likely? What’s the alternative? What’s the objectors’ plan? To continue this position until a 2022 general election?
Whilst the politics played out, unpleasantly according to Councillor Kober’s account, Ouseley J was writing his judgment in Peters v London Borough of Haringey. This was a crowdfunded judicial review that had been brought on behalf of campaign group Stop HDV, seeking to establish that the council had acted outside its powers in proceeding with the project. The hearing had taken place over two days in October 2017 but Ouseley J’s judgment, over 50 pages long, was only handed down on 8 February 2018.
The main ground of challenge was a legalistic one if ever one there was: that the council had acted outside its powers in establishing with Lendlease a limited liability partnership as the vehicle to take forward its strategic aims, on the basis that section 4(2) of the Localism Act 2011 provides that where “a local authority does things for a commercial purpose, the authority must do them through a company“. The judge rejected the argument:
“To my mind, there is no doubt but that the Council’s purpose in entering into the arrangements setting up the HDV and governing its operation, including the relationship between the two partners, cannot be characterised as “a commercial purpose” within the scope of the Localism Act. Even more clearly is its dominant purpose not commercial. Any commercial component is merely incidental or ancillary, and not a separate purpose.”
“…the phrases to which Mr Wolfe took me do not show a separate commercial purpose, whether minor or not. It is important to examine why this is all being done. The purpose behind the Council’s entering into the HDV and associated arrangements is not that of a property investor, simply seeking to make a profit or to achieve a return on development or improved rentals. The purpose of the Council is to use and develop its own land to its best advantage so that it can achieve the housing, employment and growth or regeneration objectives that it has laid down. In order to achieve as much as it can, it has to achieve the best consideration on any disposal of its land; and it must be in other respects financially prudent, to produce returns in various ways which can be used to further its policy objectives. Achieving the return is neither the activity nor its purpose of itself.”
“The acquisition of other land in the context of regenerating a large estate is a commonplace, and, backed by compulsory purchase powers, it demonstrates not one whit that a separate activity of property development is being undertaken.”
In any event, the judge considered that the challenge in relation to this ground and others (lack of consultation, Equality Act) had been brought out of time. I understand that the claimant is likely to seek permission to appeal.
In another part of London, progress is still slow on another regeneration project that has been to the High Court and back, the Aylesbury Estate. I covered in my blog post Regeneration X: Failed CPOs the decision of the Secretary of State to decline to confirm Southwark Council’s CPO based on his concern as to the effects of acquisition on leaseholders, a decision which was subsequently quashed by consent following a challenge brought by the council. A second inquiry that has been taking place into the order was adjourned on 31 January 2018 to resume for a further two weeks on 17 April. Judging from a ruling by the inspector prohibiting further filming at the inquiry it has been a lively event so far.
According to the council’s statement of case:
“The acquisition of the Order Land will enable demolition of the existing buildings in order to replace the 566 existing units of social and privately owned housing with a mixed tenure development comprising 830 homes. Of these, 304 will be social rent, 102 will be intermediate (affordable homes available as shared ownership or shared equity) and 424 will be private (of which 48 will be for open market rent and the remainder for sale). Included in the social rent homes are 50 extra care units and 7 units for people with learning difficulties.”
Inevitably, whatever the gains in housing numbers to be achieved (and indeed the affordable housing of all tenures to be provided), there will be legitimately held concerns on the part of residents directly affected. The Mayor announced on 2 February 2018 “mandatory ballots of residents for schemes where any demolition is planned as a strict condition of his funding“.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Southwark, Delancey has continued to face resistance in relation to its proposed redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle centre. At a committee meeting on 16 January, members overturned an officer’s recommendation to grant planning permission. A final decision has now been deferred, following a revised offer as to affordable housing and other commitments reportedly made by the developer.
Delivery of the right schemes, in a way which maximises the potential for affordable housing and the wide range of other requirements set out in the draft London Plan will not be easy. How will land owners and developers respond? Will the Mayor continue to intervene to direct refusal where the affordable housing proportion offered is considered to be less than the maximum reasonably achievable? Will he use his call-in powers where boroughs unreasonably withhold permission for schemes which would deliver homes at scale? The Government had proposed back in 2015 reducing the threshold above which the Mayor could intervene on planning applications from 150 to 50 homes but unless the Mayor is seen as using his existing powers regularly and proactively to increase housing delivery, this may remain on the Government’s to-do list.
The housing numbers that the Government is targeting will not be achieved without an active and engaged private sector. What if land owners choose not to release their land? There is a remarkable degree of consensus between the Conservative and Labour parties as to the desirability of using compulsory purchase powers. I covered the Conservative party’s manifesto thinking in my blog post Money For Nothing? CPO Compensation Reform, Land Value Capture (20 May 2017), in which I tried to set out some of the complexities arising from any proposal to change CPO compensation principles so as to strip out planning “hope” value (as opposed to just being smarter about using CPO powers in a way that hope values haven’t arisen in the first place). There was much publicity this month arising from an announcement from Labour shadow minister John Healey reported in the Guardian on 1 February that “Labour is considering forcing landowners to give up sites for a fraction of their current price in an effort to slash the cost of council house building“.
“Landowners currently sell at a price that factors in the dramatic increase in value when planning consent is granted. It means a hectare of agricultural land worth around £20,000 can sell for closer to £2m if it is zoned for housing.
Labour believes this is slowing down housebuilding by dramatically increasing costs. It is planning a new English Sovereign Land Trust with powers to buy sites at closer to the lower price.
This would be enabled by a change in the 1961 Land Compensation Act so the state could compulsorily purchase land at a price that excluded the potential for future planning consent.”
I haven’t seen any more detailed analysis of the proposal or indeed any fleshing out of the idea of an English Sovereign Land Trust. Personally I would prefer to see Homes England grasp the nettle, with their existing wide compulsory purchase powers, to acquire sites at a scale which would be difficult to achieve without compulsory purchase, thereby minimising “no scheme world” values. Labour’s English Sovereign Land Trust concept sounds very rural in concept and not a substitute for facing up to difficult challenges about maximising use in cities of public sector land, about densifying suburbs and about effective approaches to estate renewal.
And given the supposed cross-party support for increasing housing delivery, wouldn’t it be good to try to depoliticise the process where we can, rather than demonise the participants whether from public or private sector? I’ve previously blogged about the multiplicity of reviews being undertaken, to which list can now be added the CLG Commons Select Committee’s land value capture inquiry, for which the deadline for evidence is 2 March 2018). What scope can we find for consensus, about priorities, about the respective roles of the public and private sector, about funding of social housing and about the appropriate use of compulsory purchase?
Simon Ricketts, 10 February 2018
Personal views, et cetera