Viability Assessment Is Not A Loophole, It’s A Noose

Congratulations to Shelter’s PR team. Its report, Slipping through the loophole: How viability assessments are reducing affordable housing supply in England, with a deliberately emotive reference in its accompanying 1 November 2017 press release to a ‘legal loophole exploited by developers‘ was lapped up largely uncritically by the media:
Loophole that allows developers to avoid building affordable homes leads to huge shortfall Telegraph, 31 October 2017
Majority of affordable homes lost due to legal loophole exploited by developers, show figures Independent, 1 November 2017

Revealed: The ‘Loophole’ Developers Use To Avoid Building More Affordable Homes Huffington Post, 31 October 2017
SHAMEFUL GREED Developers are using a legal loophole to build less affordable homes than required in order to protect their profit margins The Sun, 1 November 2017

Some basic truths are being conveniently forgotten. I set out some of them in my 28 May 2017 blog post, Affordable Housing Tax and won’t repeat them here, save to say that we need to pause and reflect whether public policy on affordable housing provision is in a good place at all at present. 
The aim of the Shelter report is to seek to persuade the Government to follow through with its proposed limiting of the role of viability assessment at application, as opposed to plan-making, stage. This proposal is being consulted upon in Planning for the right homes in the right places consultation paper, responses to which are due by 9 November 2017.
But the report is unbalanced. The description of the assessment process is over-simplistic. It asserts blandly that developers “can cite viability concerns to lower the amount of affordable housing they are required to provide, in order to guarantee them a 20% profit margin and inflate their bids for land”, playing down the scrutiny given by the authority’s valuers (or district valuer if the authority so chooses) and by the Planning Inspectorate on appeal (see for example my 24 June 2017 blog post that referred to the Parkhurst Road and Newcombe House decisions). The report repeatedly refers to 20% profit on a scheme as if it is a standard benchmark dreamed up by developers, when in reality a scheme by scheme approach is required. Often that figure has indeed been accepted, but on the basis that it is determined to be appropriate as a tipping point. Given the risks inherent in any major scheme (the paper wrongly states that “the developer’s profit is effectively guaranteed by the viability loophole” – not guaranteed, not a loophole) how much profit would a provider of capital require in order to invest in that project rather than in any other commercial development or investment? 20% sounds about right to me?
The report ends up laying most of the blame at paragraph 173 of the NPPF:
“…To ensure viability, the costs of any requirements likely to be applied to development, such as requirements for affordable housing, standards, infrastructure contributions or other requirements should, when taking account of the normal cost of development and mitigation, provide competitive returns to a willing land owner and willing developer to enable the development to be deliverable.”
It seeks to show the effect that this supposed change in approach has had on the delivery of affordable homes by way of section 106 agreement:

It is interesting to look at this table alongside other tables in the research work from which it is drawn, Rethinking planning obligations: balancing housing numbers and affordability (Dr Sue Brownill and Dr Youngha Cho, School of the Built Environment Oxford Brookes University, March 2017):


In my view NPPF has been far less influential than other changes such as the loss of Government funding. 

By political sleight of hand, moral and legal responsibility for funding the provision of affordable, ie subsidised, housing has over the last decade moved largely onto the owners of land being brought forward for residential development and the promoters of those schemes. What level of affordable housing do these schemes have to bear? In reality, given such high policy targets, as much as can be extracted in negotiations, often with a review mechanism in the section 106 agreement allowing for further extraction at later stages in the development, preserving only as a potential return whatever benchmark land value and developer’s profit percentage has been agreed upfront in the viability assessment. 
As I explained in my Affordable Housing Tax blog post, section 106 requirements in relation to affordable housing largely started in the 1990s and became progressively entrenched in policy through the 2000s. But, prior to reductions in government funding, first in 2005 and then in 2011, the basis for developer commitments towards affordable housing was very different. Developers would commit in their section 106 agreement to affordable housing provision on the basis of securing a minimum base price for the units, usually being obliged to market the opportunity to nominated registered providers (known as registered social landlords until 2008). The quantum of the registered provider’s bid would depend upon the level of social housing grant secured from the Housing Corporation (replaced by the Homes and Communities Agency) and/or local authority. The nature of tenure of the affordable housing, and quantum, would depend upon the base price secured and in turn, in large part, upon the availability of social housing grant. “Cascade” provisions would specify the policy priorities in terms of tenure/quantum where the minimum base price could not be achieved. The minimum base price would commonly be linked to the Housing Corporation’s Total Cost Indicator (TCI), ie its estimate, area by area, of the normal cost of providing different types of housing. Social housing grant was commonly as high as 40 to 60% of TCI. But from around 2011 , with little fanfare and no public debate, social housing grant ceased to be available for section 106 affordable housing. 
As a result of that fundamental change in approach, affordable housing requirements are now pretty much a straight tax on land value (where the developer can pass the cost to the land owner through paying less for the land) and otherwise a tax on development. Often in reality the cost cannot be passed on – land owners have existing uses for their land, other potential development options or simply a minimum aspiration below which they will not go. Equally, land may have been acquired by an irrationally exuberant purchaser, unwilling now to crystallise a loss.   
Viability assessment is a necessary evil, but don’t assume that developers relish it:
– Via review mechanisms it can end up capping the maximum return that is achievable, an unattractive option when weighed against the uncapped risks that arise through any development project.  
– The toxic nature of the public debate, placing at the developer’s door a problem not of its making.

– The increasing risk that commercially sensitive information will need to be shared publicly.  

– The slow, expensive and unpredictable nature of the process, involving various consultants, all paid for by the developer – plainly, going with the policy grain will always be an easier option.

There is of course a debate to be had as to the relative extent to which land owners, developers and the state should fund affordable housing. I hope that we are indeed about to have that debate. There are some faint but encouraging signs, for instance the announcement by the prime minister in her party conference speech of £2bn towards social housing, the promised green paper and Sajid Javid’s recent urging that the Chancellor should borrow to build homes. We await the Autumn budget on 22 November with interest. In the meantime, unless local planning authorities are going to reduce massively their affordable housing requirements (unlikely, it’s needed), there is no alternative to viability appraisal. By all means, let’s make it work better but, without it, we will have even fewer homes built. 
Inevitably, we’ve been there before. See for example an ODPM report, July 2005: The Value for Money of Delivering Affordable Housing through Section 106:
“7.1  The research confirms that s.106 plays an important role in the delivery of affordable housing. However, there are other factors besides s.106 which have a significant influence on the provision of affordable housing. Some of these factors affect the availability of land, others affect the capacity to negotiate affordable housing contributions, still others affect the financial capacity of RSLs and other stakeholders. Such factors include: 
…

– Other planning obligations – the requirement for other essential planning obligations can reduce the contribution available to affordable housing. 

– Rent restructuring – this can affect the ability of the RSL to raise loans. 

– The grant regime – the abolition of LASHG has implications for affordable housing delivery if it is not replaced by other means. The short term nature of the bidding regime for funds can delay or postpone a scheme.

See also written evidence submitted to the Communities and Local Government Committee by by Professor Tony Crook, Ms Sarah Monk, Dr Steven Rowley and Professor Christine Whitehead in 2006:
”  Our research suggests that most (nearly three quarters) of Section 106 affordable housing units have an injection of public subsidy in the form of Social Housing Grant. At first sight this is odd and does not sit easily with one of our interpretations of Section 106, ie that developer contributions replace the need for subsidy. This might suggest policy “failure” but ignores the context within which Section 106 works best. Our evidence shows that planning gain delivers affordable housing in high price areas where land is expensive. What developers’ contributions appear to have done to date is to reduce the price of this expensive land to one that RSLs can afford within Housing Corporation funding guidelines. So, despite significant developers’ contributions, mounting on average to 5% of the gross development value across Section 106 sites (both the market and non-market elements), SHG is still needed to make the homes affordable and the schemes viable. In a recent calculation we have estimated that developers’ contributions on schemes agreed in 2003-04 were valued at £1,200 million. In looking at how Section 106 provides funding, we also need to recognise that Section 106 negotiations between developers and planners are not just about affordable housing contributions, but are usually about a much wider range of contributions, both in terms of physical off-site infrastructure and wider community needs, including school buildings. Affordable housing is not necessarily the highest priority and hence there may be little by way of developers’ contributions left over once other requirements have been negotiated and agreed. Thus both the expense of the land and the competing claims on planning gain explain the need for SHG, although without a clear negotiating and “accounting” framework there may well be risks that SHG inadvertently cross-subsidises these other planning “gains”.”


Eleven years on and it seems to me that we are in a much worse position. Whilst some grants are of course still available, social housing grant is long gone and in many areas a large non-negotiable slice has taken out by CIL (supposedly to be spent by authorities on infrastructure that unlocks development but that is not how it has turned out at all).

If the 2017 answer is to rely on land owners and developers to pay for affordable housing, let that be the outcome of a proper political debate and written into policy rather than the current unsatisfactory situation, which appears to me to be intellectually dishonest. If you’re going to tax market participants, do it openly, explain why you’re doing it and be sure that the mechanism is efficient in delivering the agreed objectives – more housing and more affordable housing, of all tenures. 
Simon Ricketts, 4 November 2017
Personal views, et cetera

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