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.