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Court orders viability report into affordable housing in Greenwich to be released

Greenwich residents win legal action to see viability assessments used to justify reduction of affordable housing

Posted on 16 February 2015

The General Regulatory Chamber, a specialist Court for a number of rights of appeal usually against regulators, has ruled that a residents group in Greenwich should be provided with the viability assessments justifying decisions to reduce affordable housing in the £5bn Greenwich Peninsula redevelopment.

Shane Brownie, a member of Greenwich Peninsula Residents, took legal action after changes were made to the planning permission to reduce the number of affordable homes the developer, Knight Frank (who bought out the previous companies), was required to build as part of the development.

In 2004 outline planning permission was granted to the development of the Greenwich Peninsula for a large scale mixed use urban development covering 77 hectares of land and included with an allocation for 10,010 homes across 11 plots.

This was at the start of a huge project intended to last 20 to 25 years. As a condition of the planning permission Greenwich Council, the developer and other parties entered into an agreement to deliver 38% (approximately 3,804), of the total agreed homes as ‘affordable’ and for these to be built across all plots of the development.

In 2012 the developers approached Greenwich Council asking to be released from some of their promises to build affordable homes.

The revised proposal moved some of the affordable homes away from the more attractive areas of the site with river views; it also reduced the overall number of affordable homes from 38% to 21% – reducing the overall number of affordable homes to approximately 2100 homes.

The developers also sought to concentrate these remaining affordable homes disproportionately on just three plots at the south east of the peninsula and to remove the obligation to deliver any affordable homes on four high value plots on the north west of the peninsula.

An ‘economic viability report’ which reassessed the ‘viability’ of some of the development, was commissioned by the council in January 2013. In June 2013, a Greenwich Peninsula Resident Shane Brownie requested from Greenwich under the Freedom of Information Act a copy of financial viability report to understand on what basis the amount of affordable housing was being vastly reduced.

In August 2013 the Council disclosed the Report but withheld the critical financial information claiming it was confidential commercial information. On the 9 October 2013 the Council upheld this decision to withhold the financial details following an internal review.

The Greenwich Peninsula Residents appealed to the Information Commissioner for disclosure of this information, which the ICO granted. The council lodged an appeal to the ICO’s decision to disclose the financial information, with the First-Tier Tribunal on 23 April 2014.

The hearing took place in November 2014. The Tribunal issued its decision notice earlier this week rejecting the Council’s arguments, pointing out that councillors on Greenwich’s planning committee had no more information about the viability figures than did the general public.

Hong Kong based developer Knight Frank’s arguments about commercial confidentiality were also dismissed by Judge NJ Warren, who said:

“This is a case where a company, robust enough to take on the development of a huge site over a period of 20 years… immediately asks to be relieved of a planning obligation freely negotiated by its predecessor. It justifies this change on the basis of a downturn in house prices it knew about at the time of purchase, using a valuation model that looks at current values only and does not allow for change in the many factors that may affect a valuation over time. It seems to us that in those circumstances the public interest in openness about the figures is very strong.”

Ugo Hayter from the Human Rights team at law firm Leigh Day, said: “We are pleased by the Tribunal’s decision, which is a resounding victory for the group. We look forward to the upcoming release of the withheld financial information, first requested back in June 2013, to consider exactly how the project stacks up financially.

“However, the back drop to this case is that there is a growing trend that Councils are routinely accepting viability reports and acquiescing to a much decreased percentage of affordable homes on big developments.

“Furthermore, when these reports are finally disclosed it is generally too late to challenge the given development in the event that discrepancies are uncovered. This is particularly concerning where communities of predominantly social housing are routinely being decanted to make way for developments which provide only a fraction of affordable homes.”

Shane Brownie said: “The is a victory for transparency and openness in the planning system. Greenwich council and the Mayor need to learn lessons from this decision that resulted in the loss of over 500 affordable homes and their polarised provision. In particular in the context of plans by Knight Dragon to build another 15,000 homes on the west Greenwich peninsula.”