Greens force rethink on affordable housing – but say millions already lost

10 July 2017

A controversial application for housing in Norwich looks set to be turned down after Green Party councillors challenged the developer’s refusal to provide the required level of affordable housing.

In the initial plan for the redevelopment of St Peter’s Church on Park Lane, in the Golden Triangle area of the city, developers claimed that they couldn’t make a full contribution to affordable housing because it was too expensive.  This claim was challenged last September by Green councillors Tim Jones and Andrew Boswell, who enlisted the help of an independent expert to demonstrate that seven affordable units, or a sum of £500,000, could be provided while still allowing the developer to make a substantial profit.

According to council policy, developers should be providing 33% affordable housing on sites of 10 new homes or more.  However, they can avoid this obligation if they submit a financial viability assessment showing that it would prevent them from making a “reasonable profit”.

Although the council initially dismissed the Greens’ concerns, planning officers quietly wrote to experts in December asking them to reassess the developer’s claims about viability. The new report has concluded that a sum of £507,000 for affordable housing is reasonable, and officers are now recommending refusal on the grounds that the failure to provide the full sum represents “a significant conflict with planning policy”.  The planning committee will judge the application on Thursday 13th July.

Councillor Martin Schmierer, leader of the Green group on Norwich City Council, said: “Rejecting this application will send a clear signal to developers that they must fulfil their responsibilities. We want to see this site redeveloped, but Norwich’s policy on affordable housing is there for good reason, and cannot simply be disregarded so that businesses can make a bigger profit.

“I am grateful to my Green colleagues for their excellent work on this issue. Without their scrutiny and persistence, the council would have simply rolled over and accepted the developer’s arguments.”

Dr Boswell, who retired as a councillor in May, fears that the council’s lax approach has already cost the city millions of pounds. Figures provided by the city council at his request show that from 2013-2016 there were 905 new homes in developments where the affordable housing policy should have applied. This should have resulted in 299 affordable homes – but only 31 were delivered. Dr Boswell argues that this failure to deliver affordable homes at the level of the council’s own policy has cost the city between £18.7m and £32.6m. (1)

He said: “These figures are a damning indictment of Norwich City Council’s attitude to housing. At a time of crisis both for affordable housing and for council finances, their failure to stand up to greedy developers in the past has cost the city millions of pounds.

“The system of viability assessments is far too open to abuse. They should be publicly available and open to challenge – I asked the council to make them public last year, and they are now considering this. I hope we will see the planning department get much tougher with developers in future.”

Notes:

1.      Based on a cost per unit of £70,000-£120,000.

Background:

The report to next week’s planning committee meeting is here.

Andrew Boswell’s question to Norwich City Council in September 2016 about viability assessments can be found here.

For a short video explaining viability assessments in more detail, see: ‘The Dark Art of VIABILITY - how developers are depriving us of affordable housing’ - https://youtu.be/QHVFMUaG8fQ

 






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