Revealed: how developers exploit flawed planning system to minimise affordable housing.
An article in the ‘Guardian’ sheds light on how developers are using the planning system to build housing purely to make profit and reduce the level of affordable housing to minimal levels.
The report highlights:
Land used for social housing has been redeveloped to provide largely luxury housing.
Developers use ‘viability assessments’ to minimise the amount of affordable housing they have to provide – the reports are usually secret so cannot be scrutinised.
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.
Many consultants are now paid bonuses for successfully reducing the number of affordable units in a scheme; indeed an entire industry has grown up around the art of dodging planning obligations. But why has it only become such a problem now?
A relatively new arrival to the planning system, viability assessments have gained increasing weight since the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) introduced a crucial clause in 2012, stating that plans “should not be subject to such a scale of obligations and policy burdens that their ability to be developed viably is threatened”.
This clause has given developers a much freer licence to force their plans through the system regardless of constraints, on the basis that local planning policies represent needless “burdens” on their pockets. Democratic mechanisms for securing public benefit have been reframed as destructive barriers of red tape, and harmful obstacles to economic growth.
And developers get the best of both worlds –
The council’s planning policy aims for 50% affordable housing, but the Shell Centre will provide just 20%. It is the result of another viability assessment that pleads poverty to the council, while trumpeting the scheme as a lucrative opportunity to potential investors in the same breath.
Local plans versus developers
While it is true that affordable housing targets are not legally enforceable, Lee’s is a position that others are quick to question. “To say an affordable housing target is an ‘aspiration’ is just belittling the status of statutory plans,” says Colenutt. “These are policies that local authorities have spent years painstakingly developing and consulting on in a democratic process.
“Developers are coming with the attitude of: ‘How much could we get out of that site if we were unconstrained? How much are we losing as a result of having to follow the planning policies for that site?’ So they start with packing as much as possible on to any given site and work back from there, instead of starting off with the local plan. You can make a perfectly respectable profit from following the plan – because the plans themselves are viability tested. And, if you can’t do it, then don’t buy the land in the first place. Let someone else develop it who will follow the rules.”