BARRATT HOLMES on a serious problem with the £1.4billion development in the town centre which was given planning permission – for a second time – by the council this week
London Mayor Sadiq Khan is likely to demand almost twice as much affordable housing as has been proposed by Westfield and Hammerson in their £1.4billion supermall development.
Having waited for five years for the developers to get their shit together and re-draft their blueprint for the town centre around the sites of the current Whitgift Centre and Centrale, Croydon’s planning committee waved the scheme through earlier this week, now promising up to 967 homes.
But of those homes, just 20 per cent would be “affordable”, despite Croydon Council’s own policy for new developments being that they should include a minimum of 30 per cent quasi-affordable homes (the definition of “affordable” varies depending on the kind of housing scheme; it tends to mean property for sale or rent at 80 per cent of the local market rate, which in London in 2017 is generally unaffordable for ordinary working families).
Under this Tory Government, developers have often been let off the hook in terms of providing the required amount of affordable housing if they have waved a bit of paper, a viability assessment, which claims that if they provide too many affordable homes, they won’t make big enough profits. At Tuesday’s planning meeting, John Burton, from Westfield, and council officials – as ever, bigging up the developers – emphasised the risk of the project not going ahead if they can’t make it pay.
Due to its size, the scheme must now be considered by Greater London Authority planners at City Hall.
And here’s the rub.
The GLA earlier this year produced supplementary planning guidance (SPG) cracking down on viability assessments for schemes that claim to be unable to support at least 35 per cent affordable housing without public subsidy – getting on for twice as much as Westfield is prepared to build.
In comments submitted to the council as part of the planning application, the GLA said: “The applicant’s approach to viability is unacceptable to the GLA, being inconsistent with the principles of openness and transparency required to foster a greater understanding of and trust in the planning system as promoted within the mayor’s draft Affordable Housing and Viability SPG.
“If there are exceptional circumstances for keeping elements confidential, the applicant must clearly detail them to the Mayor to consider if it is in the public interest to maintain the exception.”
The scheme, which was originally concocted by the Croydon Establishment of the Whitgift Foundation, the majority land-owners, and the Tory Party, through the sometime MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell, clearly has a political aspect to it. This week, Croydon Tories have been trying to claim the credit for “saving” the Westfield project, even though the only thing that has been delaying it has been the developers’ uncertainty over the future of major retail centres, and their greed for ever bigger profits.
With borough elections coming up in six months’ time, there is a veiled warning on the Croydon Tories’ website against the Mayor of London interfering too much with their pet project, and harming the profitability of Tory Party donors Westfield.
“Since Labour won control of Croydon Council in 2014 and Sadiq Khan won the London Mayoralty in 2016, the Westfield/Hammerson development has been beset by delay after delay, struggling to progress due to unrealistic demands and poor project management from Labour.” Which is a somewhat blinkered view of local history, since Westfield were granted planning permission for their first scheme in 2014, and an exhaustive public inquiry into a Compulsory Purchase Order was conducted in 2015.
The reality, as was made clear in the planning meeting on Tuesday, is that Westfield want bigger public hand-outs, and smaller commitments to social and community responsibilities, like providing homes that ordinary, hard-working families can afford.
How Sadiq Khan handles this hot potato over the next six months will test his political acuteness. Or it may just be that there is no decision from the GLA until after May 2018 – after all, what’s the rush? We’ve been waiting since 2012, and Westfield don’t intend to start work until 2019 now anyway.
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