Developers can no longer over-pay for land to wriggle out of their affordable housing commitments

HMP Holloway, London. Image: Getty.

The Labour Councillor and executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington, on a landmark planning decision.

The last prisoners left HMP Holloway in July 2016, as part of the government’s £1.3bn prison building and reform programme. The now empty site is owned by the Ministry of Justice, which has been marketing it for sale since last November – but we’re still waiting (im)patiently for the outcome of this process.

Any application to develop the site must be approved by Islington Council’s planning committee. Thankfully, Islington has some of the toughest planning policies in the country, designed to deliver as much genuinely affordable housing – by that we mean homes for social rent – as possible.

Since we published our planning guidance for the site, many local residents have got in touch to show their support for our approach.  But understandably, many people are also concerned about how we are going to be able to enforce this policy when the Ministry of Justice’s primary aim is clearly to get the maximum possible price for the site.

The good news is that our policy has now been tested in the High Court – and we won.

In April, the High Court considered a case that centres around a planning application for a residential development on the site of the former Territorial Army building on Parkhurst Road, within shouting distance from the former prison that once incarcerated Emily Davison, Constance Markievicz and Oscar Wilde to name but a few.


The first thing to note about Parkhurst Road Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and London Borough of Islington is, as you’ll see from its name, that Islington Council and the Secretary of State are on the same side. To understand why this is, we need to go back a little bit.

When this matter originally went before Islington’s Planning Committee in 2014, the applicant committed to just 16 genuinely affordable homes out of a total of 112, miles away from the Council’s policy of at least 50 per cent. The developer argued that it wasn’t financially viable for it include any further genuinely affordable homes, having paid the Ministry of Defence £13.3mm for the site in 2013. The committee rejected this application, as well as a further application in 2016. 

But it wasn’t just Islington which took issue with the idea that it wasn’t possible to build more genuinely affordable homes because of the excessive sale price. When it then came before the government’s Planning Inspectorate, the developer’s appeal was also dismissed. The Inspector made clear that, when assessing the value of any site, local planning obligations must be a taken into account. So when the developer decided to appeal the Inspector’s decision in the High Court, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, and the London Borough of Islington, found themselves on the same side.

In a nutshell, the High Court judgment makes clear that developers cannot overpay for land, and then argue that they are not able to meet any of the borough’s genuinely affordable housing requirements because they have overpaid for the land. But the learned judge went even further than this. A postscript to the judgement makes clear that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) should update their guidance so that in the future this kind of dispute can be resolved before it gets anywhere near a courtroom. In particular, future guidance should ensure that developers shouldn’t seek to mitigate high purchase prices by reducing affordable housing numbers.

There are around 18,000 people in need of homes on Islington Council’s Housing Register. Unless the Ministry of Justice can understand the concept of housing justice, then it isn’t really worthy of the name.

Both the Ministry and any potential buyer would do well to heed the lessons of another site that has lay empty for too long – one that can be seen clearly through the windows of the now empty upper floors of Holloway Prison.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington. This article first appeared on the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies blog.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.