Hats off to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for its new exposé of what’s been going on at the Greenwich Peninsula: a billionaire developer reducing levels of affordable housing from 35% to just 21%, and the local council’s attempts to keep the “viability report” that justified these changes from being released.
It’s shocking to learn that the surviving affordable housing will be moved away from the riverside to less salubrious plots (some of them close to the busy A102, the motorway that leads to the Blackwall Tunnel and one of the worst pollution blackspots in London). What’s more, it’s shocking there was no proper public consultation on these drastic changes to how the Peninsula will be developed (the council cited the technicality that there was no new planning application, but a variation to an application that has already received permission).
As a former Greenwich insider – I was a councillor in Greenwich until 2014, chaired Greenwich Council’s planning board between 2006 and 2010, and sat on the board sporadically before that, helping to approve the original Peninsula masterplan back in 2004 – I’m also shocked to hear the council tried so hard to keep these vital reports secret.
As the BIJ’s Nick Mathiason has explained, the justification given for such a huge reduction in affordable housing seems very dubious. The council seems, at best, to have been guilty of gross naivety when it agreed to the reduction in February 2013. The developers – a Hong Kong consortium called Knight Dragon with a market capitalisation of $4.6 billion – argued that property prices in Greenwich had not increased in 2012 and would not rise in 2013. This is a completely barmy argument that only a idiot would fall for (in fact, the London property bubble was only temporarily deflated by the banking slowdown: London property prices have risen in almost every quarter since 2009, and in Greenwich by at least 6% in both 2012 and 2013). Councillors appeared to have swallowed officers’ advice that “The slow progress of development on this site has been exacerbated by the economic downturn that commenced in 2008 that has effectively made residential development on this site unviable” hook, line and sinker. They should have been much more sceptical.
There were two viability reports in the frame: the developers’ own and an independent report commissioned by Greenwich and written by a viability consultant called Chris Marsh. When I chaired the Planning Board I met Marsh – who once jokingly introduced himself to a group of councillors at a training session as “The Jonny Wilkinson of Planning gain” – on several occasions. He is an experienced professional and I have no reason to doubt that he advised the council in good faith. But it’s worrying that he advised the council that the developers’ figures were correct – and refused to hand over the report that explained how he had arrived at that conclusion. Knowing how Greenwich works as I do, he must have sought the council’s advice and been told to stay schtum.
Back at the planning board meeting in February 2004 where the original masterplan was approved, I remember councillors being solemnly presented black ring-binders of the section 106 agreement (the legal document that set out all the pledges the developers had made in return for planning permission). They may not have been carved on a tablet of stone, but it seemed clear at the time that at least 35% of new homes on the Peninsula would be affordable and would be evenly spread across the huge site, not clustered on the least attractive plots.
The Peninsula would embody New Labour planning policy and be a high-profile model of sustainable, mixed-tenure housing: a complement to the Millennium Village at its southern end, and a foil to the much-maligned Dome to the north. What a difference a decade can make: while the Dome has been rehabilitated as the O2 music venue, hardly any housing has been built and many of the mixed-tenure principles have been abandoned.
But what’s happened in Greenwich is really no worse than what’s happened on dozens of large development sites all over London in the last few years. In fact Greenwich has been a lot less supine than many other councils. The council did not agree to the complete segregation of affordable housing: while there will be four riverside plots with no affordable housing at all, on another seven plots there will be up to 60% of affordable housing, much of it to be built quickly by 2017. What’s more, all the affordable housing for rent will “be provided at target rents in perpetuity unless the Council agrees otherwise” – in other words a genuinely affordable rent, not the 80% of market levels that Boris Johnson favours.
Another mitigating factor is the slow pace of development on the Peninsula, which by the late noughties was becoming a very visible embarrassment: to this day, local commuters pass plot after plot of dereliction on their way to and from North Greenwich tube. In 2004 the developers (then Quintain/Lend lease, who sold up to Knight Dragon in two tranches in 2012-13) had promised to build 10,010 homes, up to 3,803 of them affordable, at a rate of 500 homes a year for 20 years. In reality, in the nine years to 2013 only 229 homes were constructed, of which just 60 were affordable.
You can understand the council’s frustration about this, and why they felt they had to compromise to kickstart a dormant development. Last week Matt Pennycook, the newly-elected Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, told a Radio Four Programme accompanying the BIJ investigation (called “the Affordable Housing Crisis”) that if the council had not granted permission time-limited funding would have been lost, and the Peninsula could have ended up with even less affordable housing, or even no affordable housing at all.
While the BIJ’s work on the story is good, it places too little emphasis on the changes made by the coalition government since 2010 – which have made it easier for developers to cut levels of affordable housing on previously-approved developments – and too much blame at Greenwich council’s door. As even the Tory-leaning Financial Times has acknowledged, the coalition government’s policies – an ineffective New Homes Bonus, the slashing of grants for affordable homes, and relaxation of planning laws – has created a perfect storm which means that far too few genuinely affordable homes are being built. And with developers able to appeal against the council’s decisions – either to the Mayor of London, the Secretary of State, or both – councils often have little option but to agree to demands for less affordable housing.
But if the dilemmas that Greenwich Council faced aren’t unique, it is still surprising to hear about the lengths the local council went to to resist releasing the information. As Shane Brownie – the Peninsula resident who first lodged a FOI application to see the viability report – has explained, “It was disappointing to see the council fight our request every step of the way, right up to appealing to the tribunal at great cost to the local council tax payer”. If I was still paying council tax in Greenwich I’d be furious that some of it had been spent paying fancy lawyers to argue that locals don’t have the right to see the documents their elected councillors base their planning decisions on.
This is why the BIJ’s investigation, and the Radio Four programme that accompanied it, put as much of a spotlight on Greenwich Peninsula – where the council was resisting the loss of affordable housing – as on the Earls Court development, where Hammersmith & Fulham’s Tory councillors were actively encouraging its loss until they lost control in May 2014.
Rather than defend itself, Greenwich Council “declined the opportunity” to give any comment to Radio Four because of “upcoming planning decisions” on the Peninsula: a get-out clause that could be used for decades to come, given the long-term development there. I hope this doesn’t mean that the council won’t be talking to the media about the Peninsula until its development is finally completed, probably in the 2030s.
Such a head-in-the-sand approach to media relations is common in Greenwich and does the council no favours. It means that the BIJ’s story places as much emphasis on council secrecy as developer greed – a textbook own-goal if ever there was one.
Boris Johnson was interviewed on the Radio Four programme and it was clear that, ludicrously, he had fallen for the line that the developers were justified in cutting levels of affordable housing because they had paid for “massive decontamination” of the site. In fact, as anyone who knows anything about Greenwich peninsula will tell you, English Partnerships – a government quango – had paid for the decontamination back in the 1990s, in the run-up to the Millennium celebrations (forgivably, Boris seems to have erased the Dome from his memory). Thank heavens Matt Pennycook – a Labour councillor in Greenwich until his election as an MP on May 7th, and a very smart guy – called Boris out on that. If it had been left to Greenwich Council Boris would have gone unchallenged.
But tellingly, Matt didn’t try and defend the council’s refusal to release the viability report until it was ordered to do so by an information tribunal. The usual grounds for withholding viability reports is “commercial confidentiality”. But confidential to whom? The “commercial confidentiality” argument only really washes if developers are developing homes for themselves on private islands. By contrast Greenwich Peninsula is a place where £225m of public money has been spent decontaminating land, and where thousands of residents, and the council that represents them, have to pick up the pieces when developments are dumbed down, affordable housing is not built, and other promises from developers evaporate. Surely information about the viability of developments should be shared with the residents who pay council tax, elect the council, and have to live with the consequences of what the developers build.
As in any maths exercise, it’s important to see the working as well as the final answer. Councils should remember that whatever people say about the erosion of local power, they are still the boss, and developers need them more than the other way around: no planning permission, no cushy development. Of course developers can – and often do – appeal over the council’s head to the Mayor of London or the Secretary of State. Developers will often plead “commercial confidentiality” or wail that “relationships will suffer” if their viability reports are made public. But it’s important that councils negotiate hard – and are seen to negotiate hard by the resident they are accountable to, particularly now there’s a Tory government even more hostile to affordable housing than its coalition predecessor. Even if a Labour council is overruled by a higher power, at least it should go down fighting.
Greenwich seems to have learnt nothing from a similar case in Southwark nearly two years ago (Southwark had refused an FOI request to release viability reports relating to the regeneration of the Heygate estate, until a Tribunal ordered it to). Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Heygate redevelopment, concealing these viability reports certainly did not make Southwark look good: even after the tribunal ordered their release, the council tried to appeal and argue the toss over which appendices should be released and which shouldn’t.
Absurdly, a Southwark councillor even argued that “We entered into those negotiations with Lend Lease on a confidential basis, and I am not willing to break that agreement because a handful of people wrongly think the document contains something sinister”: just the kind of stupid statement that only fuels conspiracy theories about sinister deals stitched up behind closed doors between developers and local authorities. Telling people that a document will be kept secret because it contains no sinister details cuts no ice. Greenwich should have known better than to use the same rhetoric two years later.
The underlying problem is that Greenwich- like many councils – has long seen the Freedom of Information Act as a problem to be avoided, not a potential ally. In my time as a councillor in Greenwich, most of the training we were given about FOI revolved about how to ensure that internal communications could be withheld from the public – not how councillors, and the residents they were elected to represent, could use the FOI act get important information out of the council and other public bodies.
Last year a Greenwich resident asked to see an internal report on bullying at the council that I had written: rather than release the document and explain what it was doing to tackle bullying, the council refused and even argued that it did not “hold” the document at all. When I became chair of Greenwich’s planning board, almost a decade ago, it was almost unheard of for residents to demand to see documents under FOI legislation: now it’s commonplace. Greenwich Council has been too slow to adapt to the changing reality.
So it’s good to hear that Danny Thorpe, Greenwich’s cabinet member for regeneration, has just pledged that all viability reports used to justify reductions in affordable housing will be made public from now on. This is the sort of u-turn that local authorities only make when put under sustained public pressure. The planning board is also a very different beast now. An internal reshuffle earlier this year saw Ray Walker – who followed me as Chair of Greenwich’s planning board when I stepped down in 2010 – replaced by another Labour councillor, Mark James, a friend of mine who is known to be robust with developers, and to query officer advice. As even the 853 blog- normally a harsh critic of the council – has acknowledged, under Mark’s chairmanship the board is already giving developers a rougher ride.
I only hope that the council’s new promises of openness and transparency mean that future stories about the Peninsula will concentrate on developer greed, not Town Hall secrecy. Instead, Greenwich has offered a masterclass in how not to handle an FOI request and the subsequent media coverage.