Ditto Australia.....

 

Revealed: how developers exploit flawed planning system to minimise affordable housing

The release of a ‘viability assessment’ for one of London’s most high-profile developments – seen exclusively by the Guardian – sheds new light on how developers are taking advantage of planning laws to ramp up their returns

25 June 2015

 

Golden towers emerge from a canopy of trees on a hoarding in Elephant and Castle, snaking around a nine-hectare strip of south London where soon will rise “a vibrant, established neighbourhood, where everybody loves to belong”. It is a bold claim, given that there was an established neighbourhood here before, called the Heygate Estate – home to 3,000 people in a group of 1970s concrete slab blocks that have since been crushed to hardcore and spread in mounds across the site, from which a few remaining trees still poke.

Everybody might love to belong in Australian developer Lend Lease’s gilded vision for the area, but few will be able to afford it. While the Heygate was home to 1,194 social-rented flats at the time of its demolition, the new £1.2bn Elephant Park will provide just 74 such homes among its 2,500 units. Five hundred flats will be “affordable” – ie rented out at up to 80% of London’s superheated market rate – but the bulk are for private sale, and are currently being marketed in a green-roofed sales cabin on the site. Nestling in a shipping-container village of temporary restaurants and pop-up pilates classes, the sales suite has a sense of shabby chic that belies the prices: a place in the Elephant dream costs £569,000 for a studio, or £801,000 for a two-bed flat.

None of this should come as a surprise, being the familiar aftermath of London’s regenerative steamroller, which continues to crush council estates and replace them with less and less affordable housing. But alarm bells should sound when you realise that Southwark council is a development partner in the Elephant Park project, and that its own planning policy would require 432 social-rented homes, not 74, to be provided in a scheme of this size – a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Adrian Glasspool, a former leaseholder on the Heygate Estate.

In May 2012, shortly after Lend Lease submitted its planning application, Glasspool lodged a freedom of information request to see the figures used to justify this apparent breach of policy. Now, after athree-year battle of tribunals and appeals, during which Southwark council fought vociferously and spent large amounts of taxpayers’ money to keep the details secret, a redacted version of the developer’s “financial viability assessment” has finally materialised – a document that justifies why the planning policy cannot be met.

Seen exclusively by the Guardian, the document sheds new light on why so little affordable housing is being built across England; why planning policy consistently fails to be enforced; and why property developers are now enjoying profits that exceed even those of the pre-crash housing bubbleIn the last decade, London has lost 8,000 social-rented homes. Under the Tory-led coalition, the amount of affordable housing delivered across the country fell by a third – from 53,000 homes completed in 2010 to 36,000 in 2014. Much of the reason lies hidden in these developers’ viability assessments and the dark arts of accounting, which have become all-powerful tools in the way our cities are being shaped.

It is a phenomenon, in the view of housing expert Dr Bob Colenutt at the University of Northampton, that “threatens the very foundations of the UK planning system”; a legalised practice of fiddling figures that represents “a wholesale fraud on the public purse”. What was once a statutory system predicated on ensuring the best use of land has become, in Colenutt’s and many other experts’ eyes, solely about safeguarding the profits of those who want to develop that land.

Under Section 106, also known as “planning gain”, developers are required to provide a certain proportion of affordable housing in developments of more than 10 homes, ranging from 35–50% depending on the local authority in question. Developers who claim their schemes are not commercially viable, when subject to these obligations, must submit a financial viability assessment explaining precisely why the figures don’t stack up.

In simple terms, this assessment takes the total costs of a project – construction, professional fees and profit – and subtracts them from the total projected revenue from selling the homes, based on current property values. What’s left over is called the “residual land value” – the value of the site once the development has taken place, which must be high enough to represent a decent return to the landowner.

It is therefore in the developer’s interest to maximise its projected costs and minimise the projected sales values to make its plans appear less profitable. With figures that generate a residual value not much higher than the building’s current value, the developer can wave “evidence” before the council that the project simply “can’t wash its face” if it has to meet an onerous affordable housing target – while all the time safeguarding their own profit.

According to Glasspool, the most striking thing about the Heygate viability assessment “is that it has nothing to do with the scheme’s viability at all, and everything to do with its profitability for the developer”. It is also all perfectly legal............

read more http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jun/25/london-developers-viability-planning-affordable-social-housing-regeneration-oliver-wainwright