BARRATT HOLMES on a move towards openness and transparency over planning applications – though one that has come too late to provide insight into the biggest development scheme in the borough for a generation
Did you hear that very loud slamming sound coming from Fisher’s Folly, the Croydon Council offices?
That’ll be the sound of the closing of the stable door after the Westfield horse has galloped over the horizon.
Last month, Westfield and Hammerson’s £1.4billion retail and residential town centre scheme was given a green light by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
Just a few days later, Croydon Council announced that all future developments in the borough would have their developers’ viability assessments published as part of their planning application.
That announcement came just too late for the public to get a sight of Westfield’s viability assessment on the 967 homes that they want to build on the site of the Whitgift Centre. Coincidence? Multi-national developers Westfield made a strong case about the viability of their scheme (or the lack of profitability), if they were forced to comply with the Mayor’s policy of providing 35 per cent of new homes as “affordable”.
Tory Party donors Westfield have already kept the people of Croydon dangling for six years with their offers of abundant riches, squillions of jobs and a Kubla Khan-style pleasure dome. It seems highly probable that, like a spoilt brat who sqweems if they don’t get their own way, Westfield threatened to pull the plug on the entire project if they were forced to deliver more than 300 affordable homes.
And at the first sign of any resistence from big business, Labour Mayor Khan waived away his policy commitment and agreed to Westfield’s offer of providing around 200 affordable homes in Croydon.
“The level of affordable housing offered in the application was supported by a viability assessment,” a statement from City Hall said.
“This was scrutinised City Hall planners, who concluded this was the maximum amount which could be delivered while ensuring the project remained financially viable.” So that’s alright then.
Neither Westfield, City Hall or Croydon Town Hall have ever published that viability assessment, nor are they ever likely to. Coincidence?
The decision on allowing just 20 per cent affordable homes in the scheme is estimated could be worth at least £6million to multi-national property giants Westfield.
Viability assessments are a sore point in local authority planning departments. They amount to developers’ self-marked homework. Often required to deliver some part of their development that is not going straight on to the private sale or rental market, the developers do their sums on the cost of the land, the density of the build and construction costs, and then usually come up with a bleak assessment of what their profit margins might be.
Although the Croydon public has been denied sight of Westfield’s viability report, or that for Ruskin Square, or for the Saffron Tower, or for any of the schemes brought forward so far by Brick by Brick, now the council has decided that these assessments will be published in future.
The council announcement said, “Previously applicants could request for their viability assessment to be kept confidential…” can’t imagine why, “… but the report will now be published alongside the other planning documents submitted.
“The publication of the appraisals on the council website will ensure greater transparency and accountability, by enabling members of the public to scrutinise viability reports and the associated implications for the delivery of affordable housing and other benefits. In these instances the publication of the appraisal will make the reasons behind the decision clear.”
The irony of all this, in the context of the secrecy surrounding Westfield’s viability assessment, is that Croydon’s closing-the-stable-door move is in line with the Mayor of London’s own planning guidance “which recommends that the information should be available for wider public scrutiny like all other elements of a planning application”. Shame Khan didn’t apply that when accepting the findings of Westfield’s own viability assessment.
Croydon Council says, “If a developer wanted to keep their viability assessment confidential, they would have to prove the disclosure of the information would prove commercially sensitive.” Which could probably be applied in 99 cases out of 100, if the local authority was suitably supine to developers, as Croydon so often is.
The council even wheeled out Alison Butler, the cabinet member responsible for housing and stuff, for a comment. “This is good news for Croydon residents,” Butler is supposed to have said.
“The publishing of these appraisals will make the council’s work with developers much more transparent and enables the public to hold both parties to account,” Butler said. “Most importantly it will also help ensure affordable housing, which is much needed in Croydon, is built.”
Of course, Butler made no comment on why Croydon is to be denied perhaps as many as 150 additional affordable homes as part of the Westfield development, with a viability assessment which remains a closely guarded secret.
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