12 February 2010

A missed opportunity for affordable housing in Lewisham?

Last night's meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee concerned the entire regeneration of the Heathside and Lethbridge Estates. The estate is in a poor condition and residents on that estate have waited for a long time for this project. Many of you will remember that the subsidence on the A2 caused serious problems a few years ago. The project also has wider implications as it will lead to far more homes on the estate than there are now - over 1,100 new homes built in six phases over an eleven year period.

By any measure the proposals are a significant development worthy of being termed 'strategic'. It is not simply the size of the development that demands attention but also many of the comments that arose during the consultation were damning. In particular Lewisham's own Design Panel were scathing. Calls for the plans to be reviewed by CABE were made - and the plans/application were sent to CABE. By the time of last night's meeting, CABE had not replied - but no-one from the planning department had been able to confirm whether there was going to be a response. CABE's services are in great demand (either a desire to want to promote good design and development or as a consequence of the number of poor designs coming forward across the UK - you decide). At the meeting, the head of planning confirmed there was no reason why a call could not be made. To be fair I put the same question to the person speaking on behalf of the objectors and whilst she supported the call for the application to be submitted to CABE had not followed this up with them either. So despite many people requesting the input of CABE, this had not happened and no-one really knew why CABE had not bothered to respond to this development of over 1,100 homes in our borough - overwork, indifference, oversight or so overwhelmed by the quality of the deisgn they had no reason to respond. For the time being we don't know. I have sent an email to CABE this morning to find out. There's no point in asking for CABE to be involved if they as a matter of policy don't.

Moving on to the issue of affordable housing - a subject I have written about before. It's a bit complicated but as the proposals replace something like 550 existing homes (of which about 110 are now private under the right to buy policies) these are rightly discounted from the equation - leaving us to consider how much of the genuine new homes (the 'uplift') should be affordable. The financial viability study demonstrated that the scheme could support no more than 35%. As a result of this the application proposed that a fixed number of private and affordable homes be agreed at this stage of an 11 year demolition and new built project.

However there are two main problems with the financial viability study. First it relies on making projections as to the land values over an 11 year period and secondly these land values were not independently verified. As the Head of Planning explained Lewisham, as the landowner, would know how much it was planning to sell the land for. A good point well made, but does not take account of what the District Auditor might say as to whether these values represent good value for money for Lewisham as a corporate body whose aim would be to sell to the highest bidder and/or clearly demonstrated public benefits. Without that assurance there's a risk of a covert subsidy to our 'preferred developer'. In terms of getting a view on the land values within the study, I was hoping that we could wait until City Hall's planners had reviewed the financial viabilty study.

There was a more elegant way of ensuring that the number of affordable homes being built on Lewisham's own land using public money from the Housing and Communities Agency was higher - that was to use a review mechanism throughout the 11 year development at each phase of the development. This review would take account of the changes in funding available and any changes in policy. One change in policy that is supported by all political parties in Lewisham is that new larger developments should have at least 50% affordable housing. A policy that will never be applied to this application using Lewisham's land and public money from the HCA. But also, remember this, the application was driven and negotiated by Lewisham - in other words read Mayor and Cabinet.

The Chair of last night's meeting, Cllr Alan Smith, dismissed my suggestion of a review mechanism. Yet the Head of Planning explained that such a review mechanism had already been discussed between the applicant and the planning officers. The Head of Planning reported that whilst this approach been rejected by the applicant it was open for us to discuss. Given that this was a significant change to the application I would have been quite happy for the application to have been deferred to seek better advice on this point. The other members of the committee disagreed.

On the plus side a similar review mechanism was put in place to guarantee that the project as a whole was consistent with present and emerging policies in relation to the reduction of CO2 emissions and on-site renewable energy despite the fact that Phase 1 by itself was very clearly inconsistent with policy.

On account of all of these outstanding problems I proposed that we deferred the consideration of the application and take advice from our officers on what the impact of such a deferral might be. However Cllr Smith did not wish to 'waste the time of our legal officers' and confirmed that none of the other members present - himself, Cllrs Klier and Paschoud were prepared to support my proposal.

The application was approved by Lewisham 3-1.

The next stage is for Mayor of London to consider the application. We'll see how this turns out in due course. I will follow this up with City Hall.

1 comment:

Sue said...

Where on earth were the rest of the committee members? Once again major application gets decided by a barely quorate strategic planning committee.