6 planning loopholes which screw over affordable housing

Facepalm. Image: Alex E. Proimos at Wikimedia Commons.

You probably don't need reminding of this, but London housing costs are really, really high. This, of course, is largely down to the city's booming economy, swelling population, and the increased interest of international buyers in London property. But it also has a lot to do with our planning policy.

London's city government has, for some time now, attempted to make sure that affordable housing is built alongside fancy pads for millionaires. In the 90s, Mayor Ken Livingstone set a rule that 50 per cent of homes in any new developments would need to be affordable. On reaching office in 2008, new mayor Boris Johnson promptly got rid of this requirement, claiming that a one-size-fits-all target had been counterproductive. He also redefined "affordable housing" to mean "80 per cent of market rates", which in most boroughs means "still not very affordable". 

What we've been left with are the affordable housing targets set in the 2008-9 London Plan, and then divided up over 32 boroughs. So did we hit those?

Not even close. This graph shows the admirable efforts of boroughs to meet their targets in the three years to 2013:

Click for a larger image. Source: London Poverty Profile.

Oh, Kensington. 

While part of the problem is a lack of private companies willing to build loads of housing, there are also quirks and loopholes in planning policy which allow councils and developers to build developments with little or no affordable housing, and all without breaking any rules. For those that do ostensibly make their contribution, there are other ways to undermine the entire point of mixed-use housing, by segregating developments based on class.

Here, for your delectation, are six such clever tricks.

1. You can get out of building it altogether

There's a bit in the Town and Country Planning Act (it's Section 106, for all you planning geeks out there) that lays out how a new development must fulfil certain conditions in its host commuity to get planning permission. In London boroughs, this includes providing a certain amount of affordable housing.

However, there's also a caveat. While, of course, politicians want us to have affordable housing, they also realised that developers might not always like the idea as much as they do. In a review of the policy, the Department for Communities and Local Government noted:  

Unrealistic Section 106 agreements negotiated in differing economic conditions can be an obstacle to house building.

In human-speak, this essentially means "if developers have to build affordable housing, they might not bother to build at all, so let's drop the whole thing". 

Developers aren't completely off the hook: the policy relies on a "viability test", through which developers must prove that including affordable housing would not be economically workable, and they instead have to contribute to community building or affordable housing elsewhere in the borough (see number 6 for a loophole to this loophole). As of late last year, there are also exemptions for people building their own home, and small sites of 10 units or less.

2, You can make affordable tenants use a "poor door" 

Planning policy dictates that a certain amount of housing in a development should be affordable. Unfortunately, though, there are no rules or guidelines against segregating your shiny new building into "rich people's houses" and "everyone else's houses". Often, developments keep the different types of homes separate, even within the same building, and install separate entrances to make sure no one forgets their place. 

One Commercial Street (poor door not shown - it's round the back). Image: Redrow.

At One Commercial Street, for example, the Guardian reported that affordable housing residents aren't allowed in through the fancy lobby – they have a special side door. Even bike racks and mailboxes are kept separate.

3. You can get out of building it by saying a poor door would be too expensive 

In perhaps the most illogical planning decision ever, Southwark Council gave planning permission to a development in Elephant and Castle last year without any affordable housing provision at all, because the developers claimed it would be "too expensive" to keep their rich tenants safe from the plebs. 

One the Elephant. Image: Lend Lease.

The developers' reasoning was summarised thus in the council's report, which concluded affordable housing would make the scheme economically unviable for poor old Lend Lease:

A second core would be required to provide separate access, including lifts and circulation areas, to socially rented accommodation within the development.... the cost of construction would increase with the introduction of a further lift, as well as separate access and servicing arrangements.

And, in case you were wondering, they had to have separate entrances, because “not doing so would have significant implications on the values of the private residential properties”. 

4. You can make a lack of affordable housing a selling point

Since, apparently, all rich people are dicks, it turns out you can use your affordable housing-dodging as a marketing ploy.

This leaflet was used to advertise the Abbey Wood development in Greenwich at a Hong Kong property fair last month. In case you were wondering, the development contained 23 units of affordable housing (11 per cent of the total, and well below Greenwich's targets) and, as they cheerily proclaim, no social housing whatsoever: 

Image: Development Securities (Red box is ours). 

Take advantage of Crossrail! Avoid those less fortunate than yourself! Who could say no? 

5. You can get out of building it altogether (part 3) 

Back in November, the government introduced something called "vacant building credit". This basically means that if a company demolishes or converts a vacant building, they only need to build affordable housing, or make affordable housing contributions (see loophole 1), for any floorspace they're adding to the property. So if a developer demolishes an empty building of 60,000 square feet, and builds an entirely new one with exactly the same floorspace, they don't have to many any affordable housing contribution at all.

This is, as you may have guessed, a terrible idea. Westminster council alone has estimated it could lose as much as £1bn in affordable housing payments as a result. 

Even the developers – the people the policy was designed to encourage – aren't happy: the Westminster Property Association, a lobby group which counts many large property development companies as its members, said the policy was "deeply flawed" and could lead to "a further erosion of the ability of people from a wide range of backgrounds to live in the heart of the capital".

6. You can avoid the planning process completely

Until May 2016, a rule known as "prior approval consent" allows companies to develop sites without planning permission if they're converting offices into housing. As a guide to the policy on the website of Kemp & Kemp, a property consultancy, helpfully explains

The added benefit to the client [a property developer], in addition to the savings in terms of time and costs and uncertainty in running through the conventional planning application process, is that consent via the prior approval route avoids any affordable housing or Community Infrastructure Levy payments. Prior approval consents are exempt from these taxes.

So, in summary: you really are meant to build affordable housing as part of your new development, unless you're using a vacant building, demolishing a vacant building, converting an office block, or just don't really fancy it. Housing crisis? What housing crisis? 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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