Guest Post by Philip Grant (in a personal capacity):-
It looks bad. It looks wrong. That’s why I will persist in shining a light on the Brent Cabinet decision to allow a developer to profit from the sale of 152 new Council homes, to be built on the former Copland School site at Cecil Avenue in Wembley, until either the Council provides a satisfactory explanation of why that is the right thing to do, or agrees it is wrong and that all 250 homes in that development should be for Brent people in housing need.
In an article last month, I shared the information I’d received from a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request about Brent’s “soft market testing” exercise, in April 2021, which was supposedly to find out whether developers would be interested in being part of the Council’s Wembley Housing Zone scheme. But some of the information I’d asked for was withheld by Brent’s Head of Regeneration, who claimed that it was excluded from disclosure because:
· It contained information obtained from and related to the financial and business affairs of 5 private developers (Confidentiality - Section 41 of FOIA);
· It would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person, including the public authority holding it (Commercially Sensitive – S.43(2) FOIA); and,
· That in applying the public interest test required by S.43(2), ‘it is considered that the balance of maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.’
On 12 December 2021, I sent an Internal Review request, setting out (with detailed reasons) why information prepared for Cabinet by Council Officers as a result of the exercise was not exempt information under FOIA, and why it was in the public interest that it should be disclosed. I agreed that if a report included confidential information received from developers, that could be redacted (blacked out) in the copy of the report sent to me.
I received the Council’s response on 15 January from Alice Lester, Operational Director (Regeneration, Growth and Employment). On a careful reading of her letter, I can’t see that she actually admitted any error in the initial refusal of my request. But her letter concluded: ‘However, I agree that a redacted copy of the report could be provided and this is attached.’ It is always worth sticking up for what you believe, if you think the Council has got it wrong!
In the interests of fairness to all five developers, and to show that I am keeping what they told Brent Council confidential, here is the second page of the report I was sent:-
Second extract from the “Soft Market Testing” report to Cabinet, August 2021.
I was expecting those sections of the report to be blacked out, but I was surprised to see that part of the last sentence of the “Market Commentary”, written by Officers, was also redacted:
The opening section of the report to Cabinet in
[Don’t worry! The pipelines developers were talking about are forward plans to ensure they get as much work lined-up for future years as possible.]
The first version of the document sent to me was followed by an urgent request not to open it, as ‘it appears that the attachment wasn’t properly redacted.’ I didn’t open it, but waited for the corrected version (above). As that concealed words I believed should probably be disclosed, I did then look at the original, and although those words had also been blacked out, they weren’t securely redacted.
I wrote to Ms Lester on Monday 17th, to explain why I should be able to make the last seven words public, and on 19 January I received another ‘revised redacted document’. The explanation was: ‘After further consultation with legal colleagues, the words to which you refer have been unredacted.’ After two challenges, I had finally been given information that I was entitled to request in the first place.
I can see why Brent’s senior Regeneration Officers might have wanted to keep these seven words about the developers from the public: ‘… and all stated interest in this opportunity.’
Of course all the developers were interested! The market opportunity they were offered was so “soft” that I don’t think any contractor / property developer would be likely to turn it down. Which begs the question, was that the answer that Regeneration Officers (and the Lead Member?) wanted from the “market testing”, so that they could put the idea of involving a developer as the ‘preferred delivery option’ for this scheme?
Normally a developer would have to find a site to build homes on, buy it (very expensive in London), get an architect’s team to design the proposed scheme for them, go through the planning process, then build the homes before it could get any return on its development, for which it would have borrowed £millions, over several years, in order to finance.
The key page from Brent’s Wembley Housing Zone “information pack” for developers, April 2021.
The opportunity Brent was offering, in its “market testing exercise”, was to pay whichever developer won the “procurement and contract structure” bid outlined above for building the Council’s housing scheme. Once built, the Council would agree to sell the developer 152 homes, for a fixed price agreed in advance. That price would have been included in the developer’s ‘bid submission’ for the contract, and none of the developers bidding would have offered ‘a guaranteed monetary consideration’ that would not give them a profit!
The report which included this “Confidential Appendix” went to Brent’s Cabinet in August 2021, and you can see from the minutes how enthusiastic they were about the proposals:-
Did none of the Cabinet members stop to think, and ask: ‘why are we handing half of the homes on this Council housing development to a private developer?’ Perhaps they were taken in by the statement in the Officer’s Report: ‘Cabinet Members were consulted in July 2020 and indicated [this] preferred delivery option for the Cecil Avenue site ….’?
As I set out in my earlier article about the “soft market testing”, that consultation appears to have been “off record” and may have involved as few as two Cabinet members (the Leader and Lead Member for Regeneration). Didn’t other Cabinet members reading that think: ‘I don’t remember being consulted’, and if they did, why didn’t they question it?
Cabinet members apparently enthused about ‘the inclusion of London Affordable Rents as part of the offer’. Most of these would actually be the 54 homes on the Ujima House site, only 8 of which would be 3-bedroom “family homes” (with a 5sqm balcony as private outdoor space!). I had emailed the Cabinet members several days before, to highlight the problems with this Wembley Housing Zone scheme, and the need for more homes to be for genuine social rents.
Perhaps the Cabinet members didn’t have time to read my email before the meeting, but apart from a couple of automatic acknowledgements, none of them responded. I had to ask a public question for the Full Council meeting in November, and a follow-up question, but I still didn’t get any proper explanation for the Cabinet’s decision from Cllr. Shama Tatler.
Cllr. Tatler claimed that making all the Wembley Housing Zone homes affordable ‘is not financially viable’. How could it NOT be financially viable? The Council already owns the site. The Council could borrow the money to build the homes at some of the lowest ever interest rates.
In answer to my straight question: ‘why is Brent Council not proposing to build all 250 of the homes at Cecil Avenue as affordable rented Council housing?’ Cllr. Tatler’s reply was: ‘the Wembley Housing Zone programme together proposes 50% affordable housing.’ 50% affordable housing is Brent, and London’s, target for all large private housing developments, even though that is rarely, if ever, achieved in the planning process.
Cecil Avenue is a Brent Council development, on Council owned land. The Council has paid (with public money from the GLA) to design the scheme and get it through planning consent. The Council will borrow the money to build the 250 homes. Why shouldn’t all of those homes be Council homes?
I make no apology for sharing again this parody of a Brent Council publicity photograph for its New Council Homes campaign. It shows exactly what Brent’s Cabinet has agreed should happen Cecil Avenue.
If you want to deliver 1,000 new Council homes in Brent, why “give away” 152 of the new Council homes you are building at Cecil Avenue to a private developer? One way the Council seems to have compensated for this is to agree to buy a tower block with 155 leasehold flats from the developer of the Alperton Bus Garage site, at a cost of £48m. That guaranteed sale of one third of the homes will help the developer, Telford Homes, to obtain the finance to actually build this high-rise scheme, which was strongly opposed by local residents.
Why are a small number of Cabinet Members and Senior Council Officers seemingly favouring private developers like this? Why are their fellow Cabinet members not questioning why? Why are Brent’s Scrutiny Committees not asking for explanations? Why are the rest of Brent’s elected councillors not asking the Leader or Lead Member for Regeneration “Why”?
IT LOOKS BAD. IT LOOKS WRONG.
Why is it left to an ordinary member of the public to ask WHY?