Affordable Housing and the Viability Test

In the Independent today an article by Rob Merrick (see here) lays bare the way developers avoid including large numbers of urgently needed social housing units in their developments. As a member of Reading’s Planning Committee I have watched time and again as big developers plead the ‘viability’ option to reduce the amount of social or affordable housing that they include in major development schemes.

The viability test allows developers to put to the council their own assessments to show that if they included any more social housing units they would not make enough profits to make a scheme viable.

I am heartened by the noises coming from the Labour Party that they will seek to end the use of viability tests in planning applications. It is just a pity that here in Reading we are seeing huge numbers of flats being built in our revitalised town centre but we have never challenged developers over their viability figures and allowed them to ride roughshod over the needs of people in our town. We have over 5,000 families on our housing waiting lists but despite the thousands of new flats being granted planning permission only a handful are actually for social rents. The viability figures are never contested in Reading’s Planning Committee despite my pleas to stand up to these bullying developers. We have even had statements from Planning Inspectors describing the housing crisis in our town but we have never, as a council, challenged a developers viability figures in front of a Planning Inspector, however absurd the figures might be.

Even the current Housing Minister, one Alok Sharma MP, agrees that the system is not working but has yet to suggest anything like a solution.

We all know that the viability test is used by developers to avoid building social housing and I challenge the Labour Party in Reading to stand up to these money-grabbing moguls and challenge them to defend their figures in front of an independent Planning Inspector. And let us bring out in to the open their ridiculous attempts to avoid building the homes that Reading desperately needs.

Affordable Housing in Reading

I almost got a shock whilst reading the papers for this week’s Planning Committee. On two major developments the council appears to have negotiated 30% affordable housing. Not withstanding the fact that these were probably negotiated while the council was supposedly working to a 50% target for affordable homes on new developments, this is a very healthy improvement from the 20% and less that I have seen consistently approved by the Planning Committee over the last 18 months I have had the pleasure of being a member of the committee.

On both occasions (Station Hill and Kenavon Drive) Cllr Page pointedly mentioned the affordable housing levels in his comments, a clear sign that he has woken up to my calls for action to get more affordable housing from new developments in Reading. He knows that his record is poor on this matter and I have constantly hammered away at affordable housing at every opportunity in committee.

However, the council recently dropped its affordable housing target from 50% down to 30%. So if we can get 30% when against a target of 50% I worry that future agreements will be a lot less than the target of 30%. If that proves to be the case then I will, of course, have a lot more to say to Cllr Page.

The government has allowed some of the income from council house sales to be used for new affordable housing and with the economy now moving up the gears we should see more developments coming to Planning Committee. We need to ensure that they include higher levels of affordable homes than in in the last 18 months.

The New Thames Bridge

Now that the Planning Committee has made its decision to go ahead with the current ‘shared use’ design I can finally make my own views public.

Let me say from the outset that all parties agree on the need for a new bridge over the Thames to serve pedestrians and cyclists and we are all comfortable with the chosen position near the end of Fry’s Island.

Last night I criticised the Labour and Tory view that cyclists and pedestrians could share the new bridge without any separation. My only support came from Melanie Eastwood, the Green councillor and from a band of Reading cyclists who also objected to the current design.

Leaving aside the fact that the bridge design was partly based on a cycle and pedestrian count carried out last July on Reading and Caversham bridges which clearly caused some consternation as it differed widely from Reading Cycle Campaign’s own figures. The council did another count very recently and came up with figures that were double the originals and much closer to RCC’s.
My view is that pedestrians do not feel safe walking in amongst cycles, not all pedestrians are fully mobile and the mixed use would deter them from using the bridge. This will be made much worse as at the southern end of the bridge, cyclists have to make a 900 turn as they come off the bridge on to the ramp. This will cause conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians and the officer’s response that cyclists would all slow down for pedestrians is simply not very re-assuring to people wanting to walk over the bridge with push chairs, toddlers, etc.

The bridge needs to be a little wider and to have a narrow raised kerb to separate the cycles from the walkers. Otherwise we need cyclists to dismount as they are forced to do when using the new subway underneath Reading station.

When it came to the vote the Tories sided with the Labour Administration and only Melanie and myself opposed the planning application.

Labour’s flaky commitment to affordable housing

Labour’s planning documents which they use to make judgements on planning applications includes a commitment to seek 50% affordable housing on all major developments where more than 15 houses are proposed. It is an excellent target given that not only is there a severe housing shortage in Reading but we have little hope of making inroads in to a council housing waiting list that numbers around 10,000. Given that the population of Reading is approximately 150,000, that is an awfully high number of people and families who are being forced into private rented accommodation, often in poor quality buildings.

So it was with great interest that I read a planning application to do with some minor matters relating to the scheme to rejuvenate the Dee Road Estate. The total scheme calls for the demolition of 376 houses on the site and replacing them with 763 houses and flats. However, even in one of their flagship schemes, the Labour council has only managed to provide 281 affordable homes out of the total of 763 being built. For the mathematicians amongst you, that equates to a measly 37% of the total.

So much for the 50% target that was introduced with fanfares only a year or two ago. Do please write and ask Cllr Page (Lead Councillor for Planning) what has happened to the 50% target which has never been anywhere near met on any major development project that I am aware of.

Update on Chapel Hill Allotments in Tilehurst

I was very pleased to read that Ms Groulef agrees with my views on the proposed sell-off of allotment land on Chapel Hill by the Tilehurst Poor’s Land Trust and I welcome her support but far from joining the fight for allotments as reported in the Post on 31 July, Ms Groulef has simply put a size 10 Labour boot where it is not needed. Despite a picture against a background of well tended allotments Ms Groulef does not appear to have actually met the allotment holders under threat. She has made a snide remark about a Tory councillor, omitting to mention the other trustees (who include the local vicar and other residents). The Trust’s decisions are made by a Board not by individual members. All Ms Groulef has succeeded in doing is further antagonising the trustees and turning a local dispute into a political mud-slinging match. And all for the sake of a photo in the press.
For Ms Groulef’s benefit, the last time Labour put its size 10 boots in to a local dispute with the Trust was over the Kentwood Hill allotments which was nearly 15 years ago. The result was a lot of publicity for the local MP, allotment holders were moved off their plots onto alternative plots elsewhere and significantly, the Kentwood Hill site has remained derelict, benefiting nobody. The only winner was the local publicity hungry MP.

Now I know I represent a different political party but I am doing my best to offer a positive solution to this issue which is essentially about raising money for the Trust’s charitable work (see my recent letter on the subject).

If only politics could be about getting things done to improve communities rather than trading snide remarks. Please Ms Groulef, apologise for singling out Cllr Vickers, and join us in fighting a local campaign to both save the allotments and help raise money for the Trust.

Housing, benefits and a crisis

Many people seem to be working up a lather on the government’s proposal to reduce benefits to those who live in under-uitlised social housing. The aim of this proposal is to encourage small households that are living in large houses to swap with large families living in smaller houses. Given that there are around 1,000,000 overcrowded families looking for larger houses and some 2,000,000 smaller families or singles living in larger houses, you would have thought there might be some scope to swap people around.

However, trying to tackle this issue is fraught with problems, not least of which is people’s attachment to their house and to the community in which they live (and may have lived for a very long time), not everybody wants to uproot themselves when their sons and daughters leave home.
Social Housing
However the key issue in talking about social housing is the lack of new affordable housing coming into use. Had we been building at two or three times the current rate of affordable builds for the last decade or two, we probably would not have needed to tackle the issue of under-utilised houses, as the total stock would have been much bigger and the problem much smaller.

We simply need to build more housing that people can afford to live in and the current planning regime (and propsals in the pipeline) do not make this any more achievable. We need an emergemcy programme to get Britain building.

The Housing Crisis

Housing, or lack of it, is a huge national issue which no governemnt has been on top of over the last fifty years. Since the 1960s and the end of the post war boom years we have struggled to build enough new homes for people that need them. And since the Tories introduced the ‘right to buy’ which allows council and housing association tennants to buy homes that they have previously rented, the stock of available social housing simply does not keep up with demand. As more tennants have bought their homes so less and less are availble to house future families in need.

As a nation we have built some 110,000 houses over the last year, the lowest number of new houses built since the war and to put that in perspective we need to provide for 270,000 new households every year just to keep up with demand. But this is not the whole story, what is important is also the type of new homes we have built, not just the numbers. I have no figure for how many of those 110,000 new homes were built for social rents but I think we can safely assume it was a pitifully low number.

We have endless supplies here in Reading of two bedroom flats for well-off renters in the town centre and four bedroom executive homes in surrounding areas but where are the new homes for less well off tennants who are forced to rent privately and rely on housing benefits to pay the rent. In Reading we have over 10,000 people on waiting lists and we have managed to build around 100 new affordable homes last year.

Somehow we have a get developers to build affordable homes, not just homes to be snapped up by those who already own properties and will just rent out more houses and flats at sky high prices. The current planning regime does not allow local authorities to order developers to build affordable housing and the bulk of the income in previous years from ‘right to buy’ sales was not allowed to be spent on new housing so there is very little cash with which to pay for or subsidise new house building.

If developers could ever think of houses as a long term investment rather than a quick way to make money we might have a better chance of building houses for social rents but I see no signs of this happening and the present council’s actions (as opposed to their written policy) seems to be to give in to developers demands to build more executive homes and less and less sffordable housing. The council needs to demand more from developers.

We are in a crisis.

The Great Planning Debate

Last Tuesday’s Council Meeting gave me the opportunity yet again to press the case for building more affordable housing in Reading and as anyone who has attended Planning Committee this year will confirm, I do take every opportunity to sound off on my hobbyhorse. But this is a really serious topic in Reading as elsewhere in South East England. Not only are we not building enough social housing, we are giving in to the developers at every turn and even meeting our own local policy requirements.

The Labour Administration were pushing through a motion attacking the chnages to the current planning legislation being proposed and saying how wonderful things would be under Labour. I responded to Cllr Ruhemann (Lead Councillor for Planning) as follows:

he seems to gloss over Labour’s magnificent record in promoting house building over 13 years in government and twenty something years as this council’s administration. His opening paragraph alludes to the terrible changes that will lead to a reduction in the number of affordable homes built by an uncaring government. He studiously ignores that pathetic record of this council, under his leadership, of building affordable housing in Reading.

Can he explain to the many young people living in privately rented accommodation in Reading, or still living at home into their 30’s, why, on his watch, the Planning Committee has unilaterally given up on the 50% target for affordable homes in any new development and why he thinks that if developers offer just 15 or 20% that is perfectly fine for the residents of Reading. After all, we are really short of 3 and 4 bedroom luxury houses to buy, we just cannot get enough modern 2 bedroom flats to rent from private landlords. 15 or 20% of affordable homes when we are building just 600 new houses in a year works out at 120 affordable units a year, a drop in the ocean as far as meeting current needs goes.

Can he explain to the 10,000 people on the council’s waiting list in Reading how much he thinks about them when every planning decision is being made?

What is the point of a motion like this castigating the government, developers, and planning policy in general when this Administration does not even take steps to stick to its own policy on social housing, the one thing that Reading Borough Council can do for itself, to follow its own policy and demand that developers build more affordable housing. How can you blame everyone else for the housing debacle in Reading when you don’t even apply your own policy?

Don’t ever believe Labour on housing or planning, they are all mouth and no trousers when it comes to planning for, or building, the homes that Reading needs.

Labour’s Planning Gain

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending my first meeting of the Planning Applications Committee – and very droll and boring it was too. However, one gem dropped out of a discussion on the next phase of the Kennet Island development.

I was shocked to see that officers were recommending that of the 546 homes to be built, just 19 were set aside as affordable (social) housing. The developers had apparently negotiated with the council a payment of £3m after the houses were built for the council to build its own housing elsewhere. When I asked why this should be allowed, Cllr Pete Ruhemann, Labour chair of the committee, explained that this was common practice for developers to buy their way out of any commmittment to build social housing and was necessary to attract developers to our town.

Just think about it for a minute, a developer with a huge new development which, even if they make an average of just £50,000 profit on each home will bring in £27m, is offering £3m to Reading which which it may be able to build (if Labour ever did build any new council housing) perhaps 30-35 units. Add in the 19 social housing units actually being built and you can see that wonderful Labour, whose main aim in life is apparently to support the poor and the vulnerable, have managed to squeeze 54 social housing units out of the 546 being built, a rate of 10% of the new build.

Given the 9,000 odd names on waiting lists in Reading and Labour’s committment to affordable housing, this is a complete disgrace. This is how Labour support the poor and needy in Reading. Cllr Ruhemann and the Labour Party should hang their heads in shame. Labour cannot be trusted on housing and they are guilty of obvious porkies over the last few years about their support for affordable housing.

Vodafone Mast Appeal

Vodafone have appealed against the decision by West Berks Council to refuse the planning application to build a mast in Dark Lane. We now have until 20 January to send any further comments on to the Planning Inspectorate who will handle the appeal.

This is not good news for residents of Dark Lane and Prince William Drive and marks a departure for Vodafone who did not appeal the two refusals for masts in Lower Elmstone Drive. The proposed mast in Dark Lane is a mere 6 metres high and possibly less of an eyesore than the 14 and 15 metre ones they proposed for Lower Elmstone Drive. Nevertheless this new mast will still stand out like a sore thumb in Dark Lane and they will have to excavate quite a chunk of bank by the end of Prince William Drive to install it.

Fingers crossed that the Planning Inspector agrees with our point of view.