Guest Post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity
Brent’s future flats at Wembley High Road, from the plans approved in February 2021.
On 13 August, Martin published an article I had written about Brent’s plans for Council homes in its Wembley Housing Zone. This set out why the Cabinet should question the recommendations made to them by Council Officers, particularly the lack of any social housing provision, and why it was proposed that two-thirds of the 250 flats and maisonettes in the Council’s Cecil Avenue scheme would be handed over to a developer for private sale.
I sent a document copy of my article to all members of the Cabinet, for their consideration before their meeting. None of them replied, and on 16 August they accepted the Officers’ “preferred delivery option” for the developments at Cecil Avenue and Ujima House.
As I’d not received a reply from the Lead Member for Housing, Cllr. Eleanor Southwood (or any of her Cabinet colleagues), I raised this matter again with her when she did answer another housing matter which I’d written to her about [Brent’s “secret” Council Housing projects and the Council’s response]. I emailed her about the Council’s Cecil Avenue proposals on 19 September, with a copy to her Regeneration colleague, Cllr. Shama Tatler, and Brent’s Strategic Director for Regeneration, Alan Lunt.
Cllr. Southwood responded on 23 September, writing: ‘Dear Mr Grant, just acknowledging your email, which I will respond to substantively shortly.’ Despite a reminder to her on 8 October, I did not receive any response, either from her, Cllr. Tatler, or any Council officer on their behalf.
As I believe this is a matter of some importance, I was not prepared to let it drop. On 16 October, I submitted a Public Question, to be answered at Brent’s Full Council meeting on Monday 22 November:-
Question to the Lead Member for Regeneration, Property and Planning:-
New Council Homes at Cecil Avenue, Wembley.
Brent Council has an urgent need for new Council homes, and has accepted the Brent Poverty Commission recommendation that more social rented housing should be a priority.
Brent Council owns the vacant former Copland School site at the corner of Cecil Avenue and Wembley High Road, and since February 2021 has had full planning permission to build 250 flats and maisonettes on this site.
Yet, at its meeting on 16 August 2021, Brent's Cabinet approved a 'preferred delivery option' that included only 39% affordable housing for this development, with less than a quarter of the total homes being rented at London Affordable rent levels (not Social rents), the balance of the affordable housing being at Intermediate rent levels or for shared ownership. Under this 'preferred delivery option', the majority of the homes at the Council's Cecil Avenue site would be sold privately by a 'developer partner'.
At the same meeting, Brent's Cabinet also resolved: 'To delegate to the Strategic Director of Regeneration & Environment, in consultation with the Lead Member for Regeneration, Property & Planning, the decision on alternative development scheme proposals and procurement routes, if procurement of the preferred option was unsuccessful in relation to the Sites.'
My questions are:
1) Given Brent's urgent need for social rent housing, why is Brent Council not proposing to build all 250 of the homes at Cecil Avenue as affordable rented Council housing?
2) As, since 16 August, the GLA has approved a grant to Brent Council of around £111m under its 2021/26 New Affordable Homes programme, to be used mainly for social rent housing, will the Lead Member, in consultation with the Strategic Director of Regeneration & Environment, now recommend that Cabinet changes its mind, and approves alternative proposals to make the Council's Cecil Avenue scheme 100% affordable housing?
The answers from Lead Members to Public Questions are published in advance of the Council meetings, as part of the agenda package. This is Cllr. Shama Tatler’s answer to the two points which I raised in my question:
1) Brent Council’s redevelopment of council-owned Cecil Avenue and Ujima House sites as part of the Wembley Housing Zone programme together proposes 50% affordable housing. However, because it is vitally important to ensure the long term sustainability of the Housing Revenue Account (which ultimately would be responsible for repaying loans secured to deliver new housing) it is not financially viable to deliver all 250 homes at Cecil Avenue as socially rented housing.
2) Brent Council’s £111.7m GLA grant under the 2021-26 New Affordable Homes Programme is separate from the Wembley Housing Zone programme, and allocated to deliver an additional 701 socially rented homes across the Borough.
The response from the Lead Member is brief, and ignores much of the detail that my question was about!
Cllr. Tatler writes that Cecil Avenue and Ujima House together will provide 50% affordable housing. She doesn’t say that NONE of this will be Council housing at social rent levels, which is what homeless families and people on the Council’s waiting list desperately need.
Ujima House is expected to provide 54 homes, all at London Affordable rent levels. Of the 250 new homes on the Cecil Avenue site, only 98 will be “affordable”, with 152 handed to a developer partner for private sale (‘to cross subsidise the affordable housing and regeneration of the area’). Of the 98 “affordable” Council homes, only 37 will be at London Affordable rent levels, with the other 61 as “intermediate housing” (‘either shared ownership or intermediate rent’).
The Wembley Housing Zone sites.
I realise that Council housing provided through the Housing Revenue Account must have long-term financial sustainability. The expected rental income over the period of the loan borrowed to pay for the homes (usually sixty years) must be sufficient to pay the interest on that loan, and to repay the capital sum. But with interest rates as low as they are ever likely to be, I find it difficult to understand why this Wembley Housing Zone development could not be financially “sustainable”, especially as the report to Cabinet on 16 August said that: ‘the GLA have also agreed in principle an additional £5.5m grant to deliver the scheme.’
It all comes down to “viability” (and we know from planning applications that the financial experts who developers employ can come up with any figure for viability that their client wants, in order to reduce the amount of affordable housing they have to include in their plans!). The viability of Brent’s Wembley Housing Zone scheme is, of course, known only to Cabinet members and the Senior Officers advising them. It is hidden away from the rest of us in a document named “Appendix 5: WHZ internal financial appraisal summary (exempt)”.
Cllr. Tatler writes that ‘it is not financially viable to deliver all 250 homes at Cecil Avenue as socially rented housing.’ But Brent is not delivering ANY socially rented housing at Cecil Avenue. Surely it would be financially viable to deliver at least some!
But, fear not, with the money from the GLA’s 2021-26 programme Brent promises ‘to deliver an additional 701 socially rented homes across the Borough.’ Around 300 of these might be provided through the “infill” of part of the open space beside the St Raphael’s Estate. More would be from the “infill” of (green!) spaces on existing Council estates, together with “airspace” developments on top of blocks in these. There is also an opportunity for ‘New Build for Rent in South Kilburn’ (Granville Park?).
Having asked a Public Question, I am allowed to ask a supplementary question at the Council meeting on 22 November. I’m not able to be present at that meeting myself, but hope that someone (I have asked the Mayor if she would be kind enough to do so) can ask it on my behalf. I’ve not made up my mind exactly what to ask, so if you have any (polite) suggestions, please feel free to make them as comments below, during the next couple of days.