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? 

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.