Viability & Affordable Housing: Update

This is a supplement to my 28 May 2017 Affordable Housing Tax blog post, since when:
Politics, people
The avoidable tragedy on 14 June of Grenfell and its aftermath – with its residents needing to be rehoused and concerns as to the fire safety of many other council housing blocks – has surely focused attention on the challenge of providing adequate housing.
Except that by cruel irony this has come precisely when the Government is of course having to face other challenges as a result of the 8 June election. Despite the Conservatives’ manifesto promises in relation to “social housing” (later confirmed to be in fact not social housing) and changes to compulsory purchase processes, the background notes to the Queen’s Speech on 21 June simply said this on housing:

HOUSING


“Proposals will be brought forward to […] help ensure more homes are built.” 

We have not built enough homes in this country for generations. In order to fix the dysfunctional housing market, we need to build more of the right homes, in the right places, and ensure the housing market works for all parts of our community. 


This will help to tackle the increasing lack of affordability by bringing more properties onto the market. It will slow the rise in housing costs relative to the rise in wages, and help ordinary working people gain better access to this most basic of necessities. It will help more ordinary working families buy an affordable home and will bring the cost of renting down. 


In February we published a Housing White Paper, which proposes end-to-end action across the whole housing system, with measures to: 

    * release more land for homes where people want to live; 


    * build the homes we need faster; 


    * get more people building homes; 


    * support people who need help now.

We will deliver the reforms proposed in the White Paper to increase transparency around the control of land, to “free up more land for new homes in the right places, speed up build-out by encouraging modern methods of construction and diversify who builds homes in the country” (p.70). 
We will consult and look to take action to promote transparency and fairness for leaseholders. We will look at the sale of leasehold houses and onerous ground rents, working with property developers, the Competition and Markets
 Authority and others as outlined in the Housing White Paper. 


Key facts 


Getting more homes built 

    * In 2016, the median house price in England was nearly eight times the median earnings – an all time record high. 


    * Home ownership among 25-34 year-olds in England has fallen from 56% in 2005/06 to 38% in 2015/16, whereas the percentage of 25-34 year-olds living in the private rented sector increased from 24% to 46% over the same time period. 


    * 189,650 net additional homes were delivered in 2015/16 in England, up 11% on 2014/15 and the highest level since 2007/08. We need to sustain that momentum to meet the affordability challenge. All credible sources agree we need between 225,000 and 275,000 new homes per year to tackle this problem. “

Are we moving into a period when local rather than national government will have to make the running, regardless of political complexion? Plus ça change, perhaps. Nickie Aiken, leader of Conservative-run Westminster City Council, gave a no-holds-barred speech to the London Real Estate Forum on 13 June 2017:
“There’s no time for on-going pleasant and cosy chats that might improve things for the better at some undefined point in the future.”

“My view is that too many times we have not always pushed back enough in requiring affordable homes onsite, have buckled on viability or surrendered to the idea that brutal market economics simply denies housing opportunities for most people and that is just a harsh fact of life.”

“If you are a developer who wants to invest in and be invested in the future of our city for the long haul you are very welcome.

However, if you are just a speculator who wants to make a fast buck by building properties that only oligarchs and absent overseas investors can afford, you are in the wrong borough.
It’s good for a politician to make statements such as this but it’s not so popular (although equally true) to say that viability is still a challenge on many schemes. Many sites do attract a high market value regardless of any developer’s proposal (even when circular arguments are avoided) and why would the owner relinquish the site at a loss? Sales prices and costs budgets cannot be guaranteed. Development values are maximised by targeting the most profitable segments of the market and in the approach taken to density, yes to maximise return, but also to make the affordable housing numbers work on top of CIL and other non-negotiable requirements. Criticise from the side lines but would you speculate or lend your own money on any different or more altruistic basis, given the commercial and political uncertainties to which any significant longterm project will be exposed to? For a decision maker to make the right judgment call that maximises both the amount of housing that will actually be delivered and, within that, the amount and range of affordable housing (rather than ending up with nothing more than homes on paper, an unimplemented permission), is never going to be easy. What would make it easier would be:
– closer prescription as to the appropriate methodology to be followed – and for that methodology to follow economic reality as closely as possible so that, on the one hand, developers cannot avoid their proper obligations but, on the other, equally importantly, so that they still have every incentive to develop.  

– alongside that greater prescription, real penalties for those who game the system and bring it into disrepute. 

– due recognition for genuine altruism – how can we encourage good behaviour?

It is crucial to crack this because what the public perhaps doesn’t appreciate is the degree to which affordable housing subsidies are being left to be provided by the private sector – see for example the government’s latest statistics (April 2009 to March 2017) as to HCA/GLA funded affordable housing starts/completions by tenure type.
High Court
The current realities of viability negotiations have been exposed to the light in Minerva (Wandsworth) Limited v Greenland Ram (London) Limited (Rose J, 23 June 2017), a contractual dispute over an overage payment that Minerva, seller of the Ram Brewery site, successfully claimed from its purchaser, Chinese developer Greenland for securing a section 73 permission enabling a tower within the redevelopment scheme to be two storeys higher than initially approved. The factual account by Mrs Justice Rose is relentless in its detail.  
Appeal decisions
One theme of the Minerva case was the way in which the different parties’ viability consultants arrived at vastly differing figures, given the uncertainties as to the approach to be taken to, for instance the hypothetical land cost (benchmark land value) to be taken into account. Whilst the Mayor has set out his preferred approach in his draft affordable housing and viability SPG, the debate has continued and there have been two decision letters this month where inspectors have had to arbitrate between differing approaches taken by appellant and LPA. 
I referred in my 18 June 2017 blog post to a decision letter dated 12 June 2017 concerning a site at the junction of Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Church Street in which Inspector David Nicolson considered that the site value of £33m within the appellant’s viability appraisal (and indeed agreed by RBKC) was too high and he consequently did not accept the appellant’s position that affordable housing “could not be provided on site or, more importantly, that there needs to be a loss of all the existing 20 social housing bed spaces on the site or a net loss in the borough“. The inspector gave little weight to an alternative use value approach and was sceptical as to any figure that might be arrived at using an EUV approach. In his view, in the absence of any planning permission, there was “little sound evidence to show that the site is more of an asset than a liability”. 

The 19 June 2017 decision letter issued a week later in relation to the proposed redevelopment of the former Territorial Army Centre, Parkhurst Road, Islington was highly unusual as the central issue for the inspector, Michael Boniface, to determine was “whether the development would provide the maximum reasonable level of affordable housing in accordance with the development plan”. The proposal, by Parkhurst Road Limited, was for 96 homes and related works. The appellant had purchased the site for £13.25m in May 2013 from the Ministry of Defence. 
At the inquiry the appellant offered to provide 10% affordable housing (up from an initial position that 0% was justified given the viability position). Islington Council’s final position at the inquiry was that it would accept 34% (down from an initial requirement of 50%). The main issue between the parties was as to the appropriate land cost to be allowed for. The benchmark land value argued for by the appellant was £13.26m, a figure established at a previous inquiry, and sought to support the figure by reference to various comparables. The council argued for the EUV+ (existing use value plus premium) approach advocated for by the Mayor in his draft SPG and put forward a figure of £6.75m, which approach and figure was favoured by the inspector. The inspector was also not satisfied with the review mechanism that was proposed. 
Of note for other schemes in Islington, the inspector did not support the council’s proposed obligation, pursuant to its “Wasted Housing Supply” SPD, that would have required that none of the dwellings be left unoccupied or unused for a period of three months or more. The inspector did not consider on the evidence that the obligation was justified or that it could be properly and fairly enforced.
What next?
Obviously all eyes are on Alok Sharma, new housing and planning minister, for some hint of the approach that he will take. 
In the meantime, in London, the adoption of the Mayor’s affordable housing and viability SPG in July will provide more certainty, together with first sight of his draft Replacement London Plan later in the year. 
But ahead of that, an announcement is due on 26 June as to the Mayor’s proposed changes to his CIL charging schedule (to come into effect in 2019). Just remember that almost every penny of any extra charges levied on housing schemes will simply feed through into viability assessments and will reduce any surplus available for affordable housing. 
Time finally for a quick plug: LD Events’ annual Viability & Planning conference is taking place on 28 September 2017. 
Simon Ricketts 24.6.17
Personal views, et cetera

(Town Legal acted for the appellant in relation to the Parkhurst Road inquiry)

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