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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.