How to halt dodgy development deals

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The next Mayor must make sure the planning system is not undermined by some developers avoiding affordable homes in favour of bigger profits. In a letter to the Mayor, the cross-party Planning Committee, which I chair, expressed concern that the system is too easily manipulated to maximise developer profits.

The letter suggests that some developers are deliberately paying too much for land, to make providing affordable housing unviable, with several hiding behind confidential viability assessments. The Committee is also concerned some developers are overvaluing their costs and undervaluing the final scheme’s value.

A range of measures are recommended to ensure a more balanced, transparent and fair system – including:

  • Measuring the value of land according to its existing value, rather than its potential value if developed into e.g. luxury flats
  • Promoting the idea that developers should be open and transparent in publishing their deals
  • Developing planners’ skills and setting an example on public land to challenge false assumptions that affordable housing is too costly to build.

Nicky Gavron AM, Chair of the London Assembly Planning Committee, said:

“The best developers see their contribution to affordable housing positively.

Disappointingly the Committee has heard real evidence that some developers are gaming the system, leading to an escalation of land values, resulting in rising rents and higher house prices.

If we’re to get out of the housing crisis, the next Mayor needs to show real leadership and encourage developers to build homes for Londoners of all walks of life.

Londoners are losing out.”

Read the Planning Committee letter.

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How should London grow: the menu of options

Up or Out? That’s one of the biggest questions people think faces our capital – with London’s population projected to top 10 million by 2036.

But the London Assembly Planning Committee, which I chair, reveals that it is a false choice. The Committee’s new report – Up or Out: A false choice. Options for London’s growth – outlines a menu of options for accommodating London’s growth.

We can accommodate our growing population, but it will require bold thinking.

Reading the runes of what the capital might look like in future years is never easy, but there are some real and interconnected issues that need to be grappled with including housing, population pressures, public services and transport.

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Key questions include:

With a housing crisis already under way – where will all the new Londoners live?

The current company city approach accommodates London’s growth within the existing boundaries without paving over our green and open spaces.

It requires higher density (though not necessarily high rise) mixed-use mixed-income development to be located near well-connected transport nodes and town centres to improve access to jobs and services. This allows London to accommodate population growth within sustainable patterns of development whilst regenerating existing communities. If the new mayor continues with this approach we will see London’s population density increase to levels that are double those of Paris, Rome or Berlin.

This is desirable and deliverable, but only if there is enough space to provide the supporting infrastructure like community facilities and open space. The new mayor will face a real challenge to accommodate London’s population in a truly sustainable way.

The potential of London’s brownfield sites and Opportunity Areas need to be maximised through co-ordinated action to push the required infrastructure through alongside housing development. The new mayor must not neglect the local communities, whose involvement is crucial in developing plans that are positively welcomed rather than feared.

Is building up an option – or will we lose London’s special skyline?

London is about to see an explosion in the number of tall buildings, as investors pour money into London real estate which will have a significant impact on the London skyline.

A survey by New London Architecture suggests that 263 buildings of more than 20 storeys could be on the way in London, 80% of which are intended to be residential.

Building upwards is not an answer to London’s real housing need. The economics of tall buildings suggest that new high-rise developments are expensive to build, to maintain, and to manage, let alone to buy or rent. The Planning Committee has heard from a large body of expert opinion which convinced us that this approach does little to address London’s general housing shortage and particularly for affordable family homes.

The new mayor should not encourage tall buildings beyond a few designated and carefully managed mixed-use areas – and planning policy must be strengthened to restrict the location of skyscrapers and improve their design.

Can we build at a higher density and maintain quality of life?

The new mayor will need to turn their attention to the suburbs that cover around 60% of the capital’s land area.

The intensification of density in suburban London has already begun. But, given the scale and potential contribution of suburban London, the new mayor must continue efforts to resolve the challenge of suburban redevelopment. Suburban town centres offer an opportunity for mixed-use development including a substantial component of residential, with the added bonus of injecting new life into these town centres. This is especially true if green space and Green Belt are not to be paved over development.

Nothing is off the table in this report. We also consider different approaches, such as building new and expanded towns outside of Greater London. Dialogue with the rest of the south east is vital if London’s growth can be accommodated, and to do so will require establishing effective regional co-operation. It will need serious strategic planning. The new mayor will do well to start this dialogue sooner, rather than later.

The next mayor – of whatever political colour – will need to start planning for these issues from the day they collect the keys to City Hall.

Whoever wins in May, I hope they find the Planning Committee’s detailed report helpful in ploughing on with the important job Londoners have entrusted them to do.

 

This piece originally appeared in Public Sector Executive.

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Home truths for Barnet: Labour’s Housing Commission report published

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Last year, I was proud to join my fellow commissioners from the Barnet Labour Housing Commission to launch the our report recommending policy changes that would lead to a massive increase in the availability of affordable homes in Barnet.

Home Truths for Barnet recommends alternatives to Barnet Council’s current housing policies, which have not built enough affordable housing in the past and will fail to meet the borough’s need for housing in the future.

As chair of the Commission, I’m proud of what it has achieved. We have produced a detailed piece of work which really lays bare the failings of Barnet council to look after the housing needs of its residents in both the public and private sectors. This report offers Barnet council a road map for getting housing back on track and offering a better future for its residents.

Average property prices in Barnet of nearly £500,000 are 12 times the median household income, putting buying a home out of reach of local residents, and the median private sector rent of £310 a week is not affordable for half of the households in the borough.

The report was published as Barnet Homes, the council’s housing agency, revealed that the number of families made homeless after being evicted by private landlords has more than doubled in three years, from 700 in 2012 to 1,700 at the end of 2015. The total number of households accepted as homeless by Barnet and housed in emergency or temporary accommodation in September 2015 was 2,846, including 3,968 children.

The report’s key recommendations would make renting in Barnet more affordable for households on modest and low incomes, build 5,675 more affordable homes than currently planned and license private landlords so that private tenants are better protected from eviction and unreasonable rent increases.

The report recommends that:

· Social housing rents should be set at 30% to 50% of market rates, or £93 to £155 per week at current prices.

§ This compares with Barnet Council’s policy that the average rent for new council tenants should be £201 a week.

§ The definition of an “affordable” rent for planning purposes should be a third of net income, not up to 80% of market rates, or £248 per week, as it is now.

§ High rents in private and social housing have led to higher housing benefit claims, costing the council £263.8m in 2014/15 – an increase of 74 per cent since 2007/8.

· Half of all new homes built in Barnet should be affordable, with three in ten new homes built for social rent and two in ten built for ‘rent to buy’ or shared ownership.

§ The current target that 40 per cent of new homes should be affordable has been consistently missed by Barnet Council with only 1,123 “affordable” homes built in the three years 2011/12 to 2013/14, which was 30 per cent of all new homes.

§ On Barnet’s current projections for new housing, only 31 per cent or 8,690 of the 28,730 homes planned would be affordable, and only 19.7 per cent or 2,080 of homes with actual planning consent are affordable going forward. Labour’s recommendation would increase this to 50 per cent or 14,365, an increase of 5,675 affordable homes.

· Private sector landlords should be licensed by the council and a decent homes kitemark awarded to landlords meeting quality standards and minimum legal requirements.

§ About 37,000 households in Barnet or 26 per cent are private renters. The council forecasts this will rise to 35 per cent of all households by 2025.

§ Many councils have introduced licensing for the private rented sector, helping to tackle rogue landlords and enforce tenants’ rights.

§ The council doesn’t know how many private landlords rent housing in the borough because there is no registration or licensing scheme.

· Regeneration of existing council estates must benefit the residents who live there first.

§ Disastrous handling of estates regeneration in Barnet is leading to a net loss of 827 social homes for rent and longstanding residents not qualifying for new tenancies. On the West Hendon, leaseholders were originally offered less than half the value of their demolished properties, with the offer only upgraded after mass public protests and a public inquiry.

§ Regeneration plans for the Grahame Park estate in Colindale will lead to a net loss of 352 social rented homes, down from 1,428 to 1,076, alongside the building of 1,867 new private homes for sale and lease and 363 low-cost shared ownership homes.

The housing commission was set up by Barnet’s Labour councillors and has held seven public hearings and taken evidence from over 40 expert witnesses including housing professionals, London Boroughs and campaigners, and attracted over a hundred members of the public to its sessions since it first met in November 2014.

You can download the full report here.

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Barnet Labour Group announce launch of Housing Commission report

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The Barnet Labour Group, which I chair, will be publishing our Housing Commission report and launching it at a public event at 5pm on Monday 25 January at the Clayton Crown Hotel, Cricklewood Broadway with Guest Speaker Andrew Dismore AM.

 

The Labour Group established the Housing Commission to investigate best practice solutions to the housing crisis, in particular how to increase the supply of affordable homes for rent and home ownership in the Borough, and how to improve standards in the private rented sector.

 

The Housing Commission began its work just over a year ago and has taken evidence from independent housing experts, elected representatives, other London Boroughs and members of the public at seven public evidence sessions held in venues across the borough. The Commission has also gathered evidence from individual interviews and visits to other London Boroughs and organisations.

Members of the public are welcome to attend the launch event. If you would like to attend the Housing Commission report launch event on 25 January you can reserve a place online by RSVPing here

 

Full details of the Labour Group Housing Commission can be found here: http://www.barnetlabour.org.uk/housing_commission

Further information on our Housing Commissioners can be found here: http://www.barnetlabour.org.uk/commissioners

To sign-up to attend the launch event on Monday 25 January go to: http://www.barnetlabour.org.uk/housing_commission_report_launch_event

 

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Met to consider Knife Amnesty proposals

Proposals for a knife amnesty will be considered by the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, it has been confirmed. I backed calls for a London wide amnesty following a serious rise in stabbings in the capital and an increase in the number of teenagers stabbed to death.

The latest data from the Metropolitan Police shows that across the capital knife crime with injury rose by 8% in the last year, with 3,665 incidents in the year to November 2015, compared with 3,383 in the previous twelve months. Nearly half of incidents in the last year involved young people with 1,661 incidents of knife crime with injury involving a victim under 25 during that period, an increase of 7% on the year before. In 2015, 15 teenagers were stabbed to death in the capital.

 

During Mayor’s Question Time on 16th December Boris Johnson responded to calls for a knife amnesty, saying “I think that the amnesty proposal is something that should be considered.” The Mayor said he would consult Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe, about the proposal. When asked about the possibility of an amnesty at a London Assembly Police and Crime Committee meeting on 17th December, the Commissioner responded “we’re having a look at how we might do this.”

With both the Mayor and Commissioner now agreeing to look at our proposals for a knife amnesty, we’re one step closer to getting more of these weapons off the streets where they can do so much damage.

After the recent increase in the number of young people stabbed to death in the capital the last thing anybody wants to see is another life lost and another family devastated by these horrendous acts.

Whilst an amnesty is only part of the solution, it’s important the Mayor recognises the positive impact allowing people to hand over their knives without fear of prosecution could have.

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The Tories have made ‘affordable housing’ a meaningless term

As the debate over the pernicious Housing and Planning Bill continues in the Commons, I have a piece this morning on the Guardian Housing Network explaining how the Tories have redefined affordable housing so broadly as to make the term almost meaningless.

You can read the full article here, or see below:

The Tories have made ‘affordable housing’ a meaningless term
Nicky Gavron
As London house prices rocket, politicians have redefined the meaning of ‘affordable’ instead of helping people who need homes

Social housing near Canary Wharf

Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Thursday 7 January 2016

For decades “affordable housing” meant exactly what it said on the tin – homes that were affordable, even to those on low incomes. Prior to 2010 traditional affordable homes, whether council housing or housing association properties, stayed true to the adage that their purpose was to provide an affordable place to live for even the less well off. Affordable housing was, in short, affordable.

No more. One of the most worrying proposals in the government’s recently announced planning reforms is a fundamental redefinition of affordable housing.

Under the plans, the increasingly catch-all term “affordable housing” would stretch to include even properties that are affordable only to people on some of the highest incomes.

The Orwellian reinterpretation also leaves open the door to include new housing tenures that we have not even dreamt up yet, irrespective of whether or not they are actually affordable to ordinary people.

The gradual redefinition has been going on for some time. First the government brought in the Orwellian affordable rent model, urging housing associations to charge up to 80% of market rates that are affordable only in name. Then after last year’s election they introduced starter homes, which will cost up to £450,000 in Greater London and be affordable only to households earning at least £77,000 a year. In effect, they are redefining “affordable housing” into a term so broad as to be almost meaningless.

But it’s not just a definition; it has a real impact on the types of home built, as a certain portion of every new housing development has to be set aside for affordable homes.

Imagine a development of 100 new homes. Then say 31% of these have to be affordable, as is the case on the latest Olympic Park estates. When you take out a share of those 31 homes for shared ownership, 80% market rent homes, and starter homes, each of which developers will prioritise as they are more lucrative, the number left for genuinely affordable social rent is minuscule, if it exists at all.

It is the result of a government intent on reducing the overall proportion of affordable homes, while at the same time including new types of housing in the affordable category, regardless of how much they cost.

There is, of course, no problem with housing products aimed at those for whom market housing is beyond their means, but who do not qualify for traditional affordable housing. It should be our collective aim to make home ownership a more realistic prospect for more Londoners. This is a massive challenge considering average house prices are now £176,000 higher than when Boris Johnson took office eight years ago, but one we must address.

There will also be many Londoners who will never be able to afford even sub-market housing.

As pernicious as the debate on housing solutions can be, one thing we should be able to agree on is that the answer isn’t just to idly brand vastly expensive properties as affordable.

Including more expensive properties in the definition of affordable housing will squeeze out the traditional types of affordable homes London most needs, for example social rent. Section 106 agreements, which previously would have provided a split between social rent, affordable rent and shared ownership, will instead by dominated by starter homes that are anything but affordable to the average London household.

I raised these concerns with London mayor Boris Johnson at mayor’s question time recently. He seemed utterly unaware of the devastating consequences this will have on housing in London and refused to make the case to government. He boasted that a third of central London is social housing, but that ignores the fact that less and less is being built and more and more is being sold off across the capital.

The housing crisis has long been predicted to be the key battleground for this year’s mayoral election. Whoever wins will need to stand against the increasing erosion of truly affordable properties in London. If this carries on it will completely undermine the mixed and balanced communities that are the hallmark of London’s success.

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Have your say over future of Fire Service

The London Fire Brigade has launched a consultation over proposals to meet £6.4m of budget cuts demanded by the Mayor. Londoners are able to choose from two options, one which will see the permanent removal of 13 fire engines, and the other which will focus on back office efficiencies, allowing the 13 engines to be returned. Public meetings will take place around the capital throughout January.

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Proposals set out in London Fire Brigade’s consultation include plans to permanently axe 13 fire engines, which could exacerbate a recent rise in response times across the capital.

Alternative proposals set out by my colleague Andrew Dismore AM, Chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority’s Resource Committee, would meet the savings target through back office efficiencies and changing working patterns, enabling the 13 engines to be returned.

The Mayor’s cuts mean that there are very tough decisions ahead. If you take fire engines out of service then of course response times could rise and lives could be put at risk. Nobody wants to see that happen. With frontline services at stake, it hugely important that local people are given the opportunity to make their views known.

Attend your regional meeting:

MONDAY 11th JANUARY 2016 – NORTH WEST AREA MEETING The North West Area covers the following boroughs: Barnet, Brent, Camden, Ealing, Enfield, Haringey, Harrow, Hillingdon and Hounslow.

 

  • Borough: LB Brent
  • Start time: 7pm, to end no later than 9pm
  • Venue:

Conference Hall

Brent Civic Centre
Engineers Way
Wembley

London HA9 0FJ

 

TUESDAY 12th JANUARY 2016 – SOUTH WEST AREA MEETING The South West Area covers the following boroughs: Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Kingston, Lambeth, Merton, Richmond, Wandsworth and Westminster

 

  • Borough: LB Wandsworth
  • Start time: 7pm, to end no later than 9pm
  • Venue:

Open Door Community Centre
Keevil Drive, Beaumont Road

Wandsworth
London SW19 6TF

 

MONDAY 18TH JANUARY 2016 – SOUTH EAST AREA MEETING The South East Area covers the following boroughs: Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Lewisham, Southwark and Sutton

 

  • Borough: LB Southwark
  • Start time: 7pm, to end no later than 9pm
  • Venue:

Smile Suite

Etc. venues Prospero House

241 Borough High Street

Southwark

London SE1 1GA

 

WEDNESDAY 20TH JANUARY 2016 – NORTH EAST AREA MEETING The North East Area covers the following boroughs: Barking and Dagenham, City, Hackney, Havering, Islington, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest

 

  • Borough: LB Newham
  • Start time: 7pm, to end no later than 9pm
  • Venue:

Main Hall

The Old Town Hall, Stratford

29 Broadway

Stratford

London E15 4BQ

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