Residents on Greenwich Peninsula have won an 18-month battle to force Greenwich Council to release a document that influenced its decision to scrap all ‘affordable’ housing on a key development there.
A tribunal has told the council it should release “viability assessments” which prompted it to cut a requirement for developer Knight Dragon to include affordable housing on Peninsula Quays, on the west side of the peninsula facing Canary Wharf, in exchange for building more on the east side.
Greenwich said its decision – backed by seven councillors, including current leader Denise Hyland – was taken after an independent assessment showed the scheme wouldn’t be viable if Knight Dragon had to build social housing, and that it needed to be approved quickly so Knight Dragon could get £50m in grants.
The plans include a private school, “high-end private residential” units at Drawdock Road, and a four/five star hotel at Ordnance Crescent.
But all affordable properties will now be pushed to the south, towards City Peninsula and Greenwich Millennium Village, rather than being spread evenly across the peninsula, which had been council policy since 2004.
To make up for this effective social cleansing of Peninsula Quays, new developments to the far south of the Dome – around where the City Peninsula tower now sits – will see levels of affordable housing shoot up to between 54% and 58%, mostly for social rent rather than shared ownership.
Residents of City Peninsula and Greenwich Millennium Village asked Greenwich Council to release the viability assessment under the Environmental Information Regulations – similar to the Freedom of Information Act.
But Greenwich refused, and appealed against an Information Commissioner decision that it should release the assessment.
Greenwich’s appeal meant the case ended up at a tribunal, which sat over three days last October and November. The council hired an external lawyer, Christopher Knight from 11 KBW, at a cost quoted in October at £2,200.
The council could appeal and take the case to a further tribunal – at further cost – but it may face an uphill battle considering the comprehensive nature of the judgment against it. You can read the full judgment here.
Key passages include:
First, the number of affordable homes to be provided on this enormous development, as well as their location, is an important local issue on which reasonable views are held strongly on both sides.
Second, this is a case where a company, robust enough to take on the development of a huge site over a period of 20 years… immediately asks to be relieved of a planning obligation freely negotiated by its predecessor. It justifies this change on the basis of a downturn in house prices it knew about at the time of purchase, using a valuation model that looks at current values only and does not allow for change in the many factors that may affect a valuation over time. It seems to us that in those circumstances the public interest in openness about the figures is very strong.
One argument against disclosure of the redacted information was that those receiving it would be unlikely to understand it. In our experience this is never a useful objection to disclosure under FOIA or EIR. It is increasingly open to question whether the public should be expected to accept the “expert view” without opportunity to see the supporting factual evidence.
Indeed, the final paragraph of the judgment is one that should ring alarm bells as to how Greenwich’s planning system works.
It points out that the eight-strong planning board – which included three cabinet members and was chaired by the Labour group’s chief whip – that approved the decision to cut affordable housing at Peninsula Quays had no more information than the general public.
Effectively, they were taking the decision on trust, and hadn’t been shown the viability assessment in question. Should they have asked for more details?
“It is not for us to say what depth of information Councillors should have expected or asked for, although we note that at least one Councillor would have preferred more detail about the appraisal,” the judgment says. That councillor, who is not named, was Hayley Fletcher, who voted against the proposal and later left the council citing problems with bullying in the ruling Labour group.
The tribunal’s decision comes as Knight Dragon consults on plans to increase housing on the peninsula from 10,000 to 15,000 – with big question marks over whether anyone will actually be able to afford the new properties. (Labour candidate Matt Pennycook and The Guardian’s Dave Hill have written about this.)
More broadly speaking, it’s also a significant decision in terms of councils’ relationships with developers as they struggle to cope with the demands of an overheated and little-regulated property market.
Last year, Southwark Council was told to release parts of a similar viability assessment for redeveloping the Heygate Estate near Elephant & Castle. The Greenwich decision may now give confidence to others who want to find out more about the relationship between their local councils and developers.
The members of the planning board who supported the decision: Denise Hyland (Labour, then cabinet member for regeneration, now council leader); Ray Walker (Labour, then chief whip, remains planning chair); Steve Offord (then cabinet member for housing), Sajid Jawaid (then cabinet member for community services, no longer a councillor), Clive Mardner (Labour), Geoff Brighty (Conservative), Dermot Poston (Conservative, no longer a councillor).
Hayley Fletcher (Labour, no longer a councillor) voted against, then-leader Chris Roberts (Labour, no longer a councillor) was absent.