Planners, don’t give in to developers without securing 40% social housing

(This morning I was asked to comment on BBC radio on how developers are avoiding producing 40% social housing in new developments. On the programme with me was a woman called Amanda from Portslade who so eloquently spoke about the impact that the housing crisis has had on her and her family. She is doing “the right thing” – working, caring for her children and elderly residents – and all she wants is a small break. She is the human face of what I write about below. Here are a few of my comments and an account of an experience I had when I sat on Brighton’s Planning Committee as a councillor in the 1980s) 

Such is the shortage of land in areas like Brighton and Hove, if councils can’t get 40% social housing in a new development, I would rather a site remains undeveloped. The wrong developments is worse than no development at all. Once land is developed it is gone forever. It is better wait until a developer can deliver social housing at the required level than get a site developed which is nothing more than a development opportunity. Councils should not, in almost all cases, allow development without the 40%. I would go further and ask whether 40% is adequate.

(I can think of one exception locally, and that are the developments in the Brighton Marina where the service charge required to maintain sea defences could prove prohibitively expensive for social landlords. It could be argued that in this case the social housing provision could be met by planning gain in another location).

Research by Shelter shows the number of affordable homes in new developments drops drastically after developers submit a “viability assessment” when applying for planning permission.

These assessments allow developers to put in applications which do not meet council targets for affordable homes, claiming that 40% would severely reduced profitability.

The fear of local authorities is that if they refuse permission the applicant will appeal to a national planning inspector who will grant permission with even lower levels of affordable housing.

Polly Neate from Shelter said: “The government needs to fix our broken housing system – and it must start by closing this loophole to get the country building homes that are genuinely affordable for people on middle and low incomes to rent or buy.”

Alok Sharma MP

Even the Housing Minister, Alok Sharma, thinks there is a problem and is to consult on reforms: “Clearly the system as it is does not work. We are proposing a set of improvements we believe will make it work better. Let’s see what views come forward as a result of the consultation.”

When I was a councillor back in the 1980s, we had a stand off with the developer for commercial premises, not housing. The Council officers reported to councillors that a “good deal” for what became known as a Section 106 agreement had been reached with the developer, to be invested in community facilities. The proposed amount from this “planning gain” was £700,000.

Together with colleagues we held out for more, against the advice of the officers. Approval was delayed time and again, much to the annoyance of the officers, until we settled at £7 million.

After the meeting I said to the developer’s agent that I hoped our intransigence had not caused too many problems for them. He smiled and said not at all. He said, “We would have gone to £15 million”.

I am not sure whether he was telling the truth or showing bravado, but the lesson I took away was not to give in too easily. As a result of that particular experience, Hollingbury and Patcham gained the Old Boat Corner Community Centre, a new playground and some other planning gain.

Any council that fails to secure 40% social housing is selling off the assets of the community far too cheaply.

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