Friday, 24 July 2015

Brent Planning Committee attempts to push the affordable housing agenda forward

Steve Weeks,  Brent Council's Head of Area Planning, was refreshingly straight talking at last night's Planning Committee when he stated that the Government's aim was to push the housing market rather than the amount of affordable housing.

Speaking about the Vacant Building Credit, which enables developers to escape affordable housing requirements under somewhat vague criteria, Weeks remarked, 'There has been much discussion in planning circles about how much of a gift this is to the development industry.'

He said that the  purpose was to incentivise development and that the  Council were stuck with the policy but were trying to be interpret it in a reasonable way. The Committee (with one abstention) agreed a definition of that the Vacant Building Credit would be applicable only to 'builsings that have been in lawful use for a continuous period of less than six months in the three years before which planning permission first permits the chargeable development.'

In the ensuing discussion officers made it clear that they would check on whether developers had made genuine efforts to market such properties at realistic prices in a reasonable way or had deliberately left them empty or abandoned.  However, they also pointed out that they had limited resources.

The vexed question of Viability Assessment, whereby developers try and reduce the amount of affordable properties they have to provide in developments, often once planning permission has been granted and work started, on the grounds of getting a 'reasonable return' on their investment, was discussed at some length.

Officers were working with other London boroughs on a Protocol to address the issue and the aim was to have some guidance on the Council website for developers  which would address the issue of viability from the pre-application stages.  The Protocol should be available by the end of the year. Sarah Marquis, Chair of the Committee had circulated to member a very full document from Islington Council and suggested something similar for Brent.

Steve Weeks said that much of the Islington Policy was lifted from the London Plan, and thus repeated existing policy.  Brent Council could produce a shorter version but that would take some time and it was important that guidance should be available to developers sooner.

The Committee agreed recommendations that a position statement be posted on the Council website  requiring affordable housing viability assessment to be provided in a form that is open to public and members' scrutiny with more comprehensive affordable housing related advice. They also agreed in principle to closer work with London boroughs on an affordable housing protocol and joint procurement of a consultants' panel.

The Council's target of 50% affordable housing in new developments would be retained with a 70/30 social or affordable rent/intermediate split rather than the Mayor's 60/40.  The Council is commissioning a Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) which should demonstrate the housing needs in the borough to update the Council's housing strategy. It is likely to show a large increase in the need for 'intermediate products'. House price rises mean that households with incomes between £58,000 and £73,000 should be eligible for 25% shared ownership properties.

Earlier in discussions of the  Brent Development Management Policies Local Plan officers said that there was a possibility of releasing some industrial (employment) sites for housing that would need to meet the minimum affordable housing targets and that these might also be released for the provision of new secondary schools that would be needed in the future.

Sarah Marquis asked officers to look at the potential of adopting a code for developers that would require them to sell to Londoners in the first instace rather than overseas buyers.

There was a fairly short discussion due to time constraints on the issue of 'Poor Doors' (separate entrances for private and social tenants in mixed developments).  Officers said that the entrances should look the same from the outside, although they would be different once you stepped inside. Private tenants would have services such as concierge and social teneants would not be able to afford the service charges involved.

When it was suggested that there should be a single entrance, committee members were told that there was a limit on how many flats should be accessible from a single court. This meant that there had to be several entrances.

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