Croydon Council has agreed to sell the Taberner House site.
The deal has been done within the first month of Jo Negrini being installed as the council’s chief executive, but neither she nor Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour-run council, have made any public announcement of this multi-million pound sale of the publicly owned prime site, located between the Croydon Flyover and the Town Hall.
But some details of the deal have been reported by commercial property website CoStar, which revealed that Bridges, a property investment fund, had acquired the site, “subject to planning permission”. It will be Croydon Council which has to grant that permission.
According to 18-month-old estimates from the Department for Communities and Local Government, a half a hectare brownfield site in Croydon for residential development could be valued as worth at least £10million. The town centre Taberner House site, alongside public gardens, is regarded as a prime location, and property values have trended upwards since the DCLG published its paper.
With so many delays over the site’s development, it appears that the council has opted to cash-in for a quick sale, rather than wait to collect its share of the profits from the anticipated £120million development of flats on the site.
The site of the landmark former council head offices has been standing undeveloped since the 19-storey building’s demolition was completed two years ago. A scheme was agreed for the site as long ago as November 2013, under the then Tory-run council. This was for five tower blocks, including one of 32 storeys, providing 400 homes, but this would have also encroached on to neighbouring Queen’s Gardens. It was to be developed by CCURV, the council’s urban regeneration joint venture with John Laing.
At the time, the then opposition council spokesman, Paul Scott, called the plans “perverse”, since they broke the council’s own masterplan which limited tall buildings in the town centre to 20 storeys. “For the council itself to then put in an application for a 32-storey building is just perverse,” Scott said.
“Greed has taken over, they just want to make as much money as possible.”
Immediately upon winning the May 2014 local elections, the Labour group, with Scott now appointed as chair of the council planning committee, junked those initial plans, thus “saving” Queen’s Gardens. A year later CCURV were also dropped from the project, with the council announcing that it would develop the prime site through its new commercial development company, since named Brick by Brick, with the work funded through its Revolving Investment Fund, or “RIF”.
By taking on the role of the developer, the council hoped to bank the profits from the sales of the 400-or-so new homes it planned to build on the site. The total value of sales at current market values are estimated to be worth £120 million.
But 12 months on from that announcement, and no progress had been made.
Then, last month, Alison Butler, the cabinet member responsible for housing, announced at a Town Hall meeting that a new development partner, Hub Group, would be taking on the scheme. Butler had dropped Brick by Brick, supposedly the Labour council’s flagship housing providers. Not that anyone on the dozy Conservative opposition benches noticed.
“We’re delighted to be welcoming Hub to Croydon,” Butler said.
The scheme now, she said, would involve four blocks and 500 new homes, plus some retail space, and they would be “revitalising the Queen’s Gardens”, though she failed to explain what that might mean.
But then, Butler also forgot to mention that the site was to be flogged off.
A year earlier, in a report that was approved by the council cabinet, Negrini, then the council’s “executive director Place”, together with Butler, as the council’s cabinet member for homes, regeneration and planning, plus Simon Hall, Labour’s finance chief, were granted “executive delegated authority to undertake the relevant steps and conclude any agreements necessary to deliver the redevelopment of the Taberner House site, including but not limited to…
“To dispose of the freehold interest of the development land required for the Taberner House scheme … from the Council to the Council’s Development Company, taking into account S 233 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990”.
It now appears that Negrini, Butler and Hall have taken that “including but not limited to” loophole to allow them to bypass Brick by Brick and sell the Taberner land in a secretive deal.
CoStar reported last week that a property investment fund manager, Bridges Ventures, had bought the site with Hub. “The site has been acquired from the local authority in an off-market transaction,” they said, meaning it had all been done on the QT, without any possibility of any commercial bids for this valuable piece of public real estate.
“Completion remains subject to planning consent,” CoStar reported.
This ought to present a couple of tricky ethical dilemmas for Croydon’s planning committee, with conflicts of interest emerging at every turn. Dare they deny permission from developers who will pay the council millions of pounds for the land?
And Paul Scott, as well as being the committee chair, is deputy to the cabinet member for homes, regeneration and planning, who has agreed this deal. And he also happens to be Alison Butler’s partner.
The Taberner scheme is almost twice the size of anything which Bridges and Hub have worked on together before.
“The capital’s ever-increasing population is creating a growing demand for lower-cost housing for ordinary Londoners, so developments like these have the potential to deliver strong societal impact – as well as being attractive, resilient investments,” Simon Ringer, the head of property funds at Bridges Ventures, was quoted as saying.
“Our three previous collaborations with HUB have shown it’s possible to provide both vital new housing and attractive public spaces that serve the needs of the local community; we intend to draw on this experience to do the same for the people of Croydon.”
Just when these much-needed homes will actually be built and occupied remains uncertain.
Work will not start until 2017, which makes it possible that no homes will have been delivered by the Labour-run council on the Taberner House site before the next Town Hall elections in 2018. Under Newman and Butler, Croydon Council built just 12 council homes in its first 18 months in office.
Another report, published by Construction Index before the Bank Holiday weekend, named the quantity surveyors and new architects for the £120 million project. “Hub Group has instructed architect AHMM to draw up new plans for the scheme, and, subject to planning approval, construction should begin next year. Planning permission had previously been granted for five residential blocks with more than 400 homes.”
That’ll be the third set of architects and plans for the site in less than four years, and still not a brick has been laid.
According to Construction Index, Faithful and Gould has been appointed as quantity surveyor and employer’s agent for the development. It is Faithful and Gould’s sixth contract with Hub Group.
The reports suggest that the new homes, once completed, will be available for private sale and shared ownership. There is no mention of any social housing or council homes among the 500 flats to be delivered.
Labour’s 2014 local election manifesto pledged to ensure all housing schemes should include at least 30 per cent “affordable” housing. The councilspeak definition of affordable is probably a little different from what most ordinary individuals would regard as truly affordable, as it means properties to let or for sale at no more than 80 per cent of the local market rate, which for a two-bed-room flat in Croydon in 2016 must be somewhere around £240,000 if for sale or north of £800 per month in rent. So not very “affordable” at all.
Details of what Hub and their investment fund mates will deliver on the site have so far been a tad vague. One report suggests “350 ‘lower cost’ homes, 150 affordable houses”, while elsewhere, Hub has said, “The development is expected to include a mixture of housing for sale and for rent, together with a significant amount of affordable housing”. “Significant”? Your guess is as good as Alison Butler’s.
The plans will need to be submitted to Paul Scott’s committee this autumn, but with local elections looming and Tony Newman shooting off at the keyboard about providing “50 per cent affordable housing”, proposals for Taberner House are sure to be closely scrutinised to ensure that, for once, at least, the council leader and his close cabal of colleagues, including Butler and Scott, deliver on his characteristically clumsy rhetoric.
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