Guest post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity
Diagrammatic view of Brent’s proposed Cecil Avenue development.
It is more than four months since I first raised questions about Brent Council’s proposals for the Cecil Avenue site in its Wembley Housing Zone scheme. Brent has an urgent need for genuinely affordable Council homes. This is Council-owned land, and the Council has had full planning permission for it since February 2021. Why was it proposing that 152 of the 250 homes on this site should be for a private developer to sell for profit?
I got no answers from the Cabinet members or Council Officers that I asked to explain this “preferred option” (which Brent’s Cabinet approved on 16 August). In order to force them to say something on this matter, I asked a Public Question for November’s Full Council meeting. The written reply I received from Cllr. Shama Tatler before the meeting sidestepped the main points of my question.
A supplementary question was asked, on my behalf, at the Full Council meeting on 22 November, but the Lead Member for Regeneration was not there to answer it. I eventually received a written reply, but again the key points in it were not answered by Cllr.Tatler (or the Council Officer who composed the reply on her behalf).
As well as the lack of genuinely affordable housing in the Council’s scheme, I was troubled as to why Brent was involving a private developer in what should have been a solely Council housing project. In addition to preparing the supplementary question, I put in a Freedom of Information Act request for information about Brent’s “soft market testing” exercise in April 2021. I’ve now received the Council’s response, and you may well be interested to know what I have found out (and what Brent’s Officers still don’t want to disclose).
I learned that this “market testing” had taken place from this paragraph in the Wembley Housing Zone report to the 16 August 2021 Cabinet meeting:
'3.5.4 Soft market testing interviews with five developers undertaken April 2021 confirm general market appetite for new housing development opportunities, specific market appetite for Wembley as a location for private sales housing, the two planning schemes, preferred delivery approach for 50% affordable housing, procurement and contractual arrangements.'
But why were Brent’s Officers involving private developers in a Council scheme in the first place? An earlier paragraph in the report had said:
‘Cabinet Members were consulted in July 2020 and indicated a preferred delivery option for the Cecil Avenue site, namely that the Council finance construction, retain the affordable housing, and procure a developer partner to build out and take the private sales housing ….’
I’ve checked the minutes of the July 2020 Cabinet meeting, but I found nothing to substantiate that statement. If Cabinet members were consulted, it must have been “off record”, so who were they? Almost certainly the Lead Member for Regeneration, probably the Council Leader also, and possibly the Deputy Leader and / or Lead Member for Housing. Any of those who were not consulted are welcome to let me know.
Some of Cabinet’s “likely suspects” for Brent’s Cecil Avenue scheme.
So, what did I find out about the Council’s “soft market testing”, as part of its efforts to ‘procure a development partner’ for the Wembley Housing Zone? Here is the first question I asked, with the reply I received in red:
1) What were the names of the five developers who were interviewed?
Anthology, Higgins, London Square, Lovell and United Living.
Anyone who has read the Wembley Matters coverage on Granville New Homes and the Ridge Report will be as surprised as I was to see “Higgins” included on the list! They seem to crop up on a number of Brent Council schemes over recent years, almost as if they were a favoured contractor. The only excuse for them being invited to take part in this exercise is that it might have taken place a week or two before Council Officers were aware of the contents of the Ridge Report, including that:
‘Since taking handover of the buildings, from the original developer Higgins construction, problems with water ingress from the external envelope have been noted.’ and:
‘The external envelopes on these buildings have been constructed from relatively inexpensive materials and there is evidence of poor-quality workmanship.’
Higgins Homes is a client of Terrapin Communications, who have cropped up over local planning and development issues on “Wembley Matters” before. Back in 2017, Terrapin treated Cllrs Muhammed Butt and Shama Tatler to a three course dinner, where they met a number of the PR company’s developer clients. Those clients included London Square, who are building a scheme at Neasden Lane, with Clarion Housing.
Anthology are the company behind the Wembley Parade development at North End Road, Wembley Park, while one of United Living’s current schemes is with Network Homes in South Kilburn. Lovell are big nationwide housebuilders, but their only project in London at the moment is in Woolwich.
Why were these developers chosen for this “soft market testing”, and who chose them? Those were the points I raised in my next two FoI questions (with the Council’s replies in red):
2) What method or process was used by Brent Council to choose which developers to interview for this "soft market testing" exercise?
The Head of Regeneration and Regeneration Manager selected developers for the WHZ soft market testing based on their knowledge and experience of the London property market, to obtain market intelligence to inform the proposed WHZ procurement; this is a standard approach taken in public procurement.
3) How many Council Officers, and how many elected members of the Council, were involved in choosing these developers? What positions within Brent Council did these Officers and elected members hold?
The Head of Regeneration and Regeneration Manager selected developers for the WHZ soft market testing. No elected members were involved in selecting developers for the WHZ soft market testing.
Now we get onto what Brent’s “soft market testing” actually involved:
4) How were the prospective interviewee developers for this exercise contacted to take part in these interviews? Please provide copies of the email, letter or other communication sent to the developers, and a copy of any information about the proposed Wembley Housing Zone developments provided to them in advance of the interviews.
Developers were contacted by telephone and emailed a diary invitation and an information pack in advance of the meeting, copy of which is included in this response (names are redacted as personal information exempt under s40(2) FOIA).
The email, sent 19 April 2021, was brief, and I will just include its main text here, but the ‘information pack’ is very informative, and I will ask Martin to attach a copy of that at the end of this article:
Please find attached information pack which would be useful to review ahead of our meeting tomorrow, as it provides you with some further information about the schemes we will be discussing.
Look forward to seeing you then! Best,
Regeneration Project Manager.’
Final page of Brent’s Wembley Housing Zone “information pack” for developers, April 2021.
From the “Scheme Design” details for the Cecil Avenue site on page 2, it is clear that Council Officers (perhaps in consultation with a Lead Member?) had decided, well in advance of submitting proposals to Cabinet for a decision, that 152 of the 250 homes to be built on the former Copland School land would be for private sale, including 20 of the 64 family-sized homes.
Although said to be an exercise ‘to obtain market intelligence to inform the proposed WHZ procurement’, this was clearly a very specific piece of “market testing”. This can be seen from the way the exercise was carried out, and the Council Officers involved in it:
5) How were the interviews actually conducted in practice (e.g. telephone, online meeting, face-to-face meeting, written questionnaire)? How many representatives of Brent Council took part in each interview, and what positions in the Council did each one hold?
All WHZ soft market testing sessions were held online and attended by the Regeneration Manager and a Procurement Officer. The Head of Regeneration, a Senior Lawyer, and a Regeneration Officer also attended some sessions.
If a Senior Brent Council Lawyer was involved in some of the sessions, it suggests that at least some of the prospective developers were getting quite serious about the chance of becoming Brent’s “development partner” for this Wembley Housing Zone scheme!
That was the last of my FoI questions that Brent (through its Head of Regeneration, Jonathan Kay) were prepared to disclose information on. I had asked for copies of the notes of the five interviews, and was not surprised that these were refused, as being confidential and commercially sensitive. However, I was disappointed with the response to my final point:
7) If the person(s) who conducted the interviews produced a report summarising the results obtained, please let me have a copy of that report, and the position(s) at Brent Council of the person(s) to whom that report was addressed.
We consider the summary report from the WHZ soft market testing is confidential (s41 FOIA) and commercially sensitive (s43 FOIA) and therefore exempt from disclosure.
I won’t bore you with “chapter and verse” of Brent’s legal arguments over why they consider that Sections 41 and 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act apply in this case. Nor will I bore you with my reasons why they don’t apply to much of the information in that summary report, but I have made my case and asked for an Internal Review of the refusal to supply a copy.
Brent clearly doesn’t want me, or you, to know what was going on over its discussions with private developers in connection with its Cecil Avenue development. But why should those private developers be invited to make a profit from selling 152 homes on a Council scheme, that Brent residents urgently need? Will anyone at the Civic Centre give us a full and honest answer, and if not, why not?