The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on the problem of rogue developers.
A council’s relationship with property developers is always tricky. On the one hand, government cuts to council budgets have meant deals with developers are often the only game in town when it comes to delivering the house building numbers we need to solve the housing crisis. On the other, that gives developers significant power to try and negotiate down levels of affordable housing and increase their profit margins.
For Tower Hamlets council, our focus is on delivering homes which are genuinely affordable to local people. Whilst we have ambitious plans to build new affordable council homes ourselves in the coming years, we also rely on maximising the amount of affordable housing being included in new schemes by developers. Developers, on the other hand, are private companies ultimately focused on their profit margins.
Managing that tricky relationship, balancing very different priorities, is always going to be hard – but it’s in both sides’ interest. That’s why, when developers do cross the line, we must come down hard on them.
Last week was one of those occasions, when overnight a developer illegally demolished three Conservation Area Victorian cottages on the Isle of Dogs. Despite having had requests to demolish them rejected, the owners of the land literally ploughed ahead at the weekend when officials weren’t watching.
The homes, which had survived the Blitz, are now reduced to rubble. For our part the council are looking at all legal options available, including rebuilding these cottages brick by brick – but it opens up a broader question about how development works in our city.
Whilst rogue demolitions are a first for Tower Hamlets, it’s not unheard of. Last year, the Carlton Tavern, a historic pub in Maida Vale was illegally levelled by developers. The Council ordered it to be rebuilt but the developers ignored the ruling in the end, forcing the secretary of state to set up a public enquiry which ruled the developers should rebuild the site.
London is one of the fastest changing cities in the world, with my borough of Tower Hamlets home to massive amounts of development. To make that work we need constructive and respectful relationships between councils, developers and local people. We might not always agree – but more often than not we should be able to strike a balance.
The mayor of London has talked a lot about punishing rogue landlords; we might consider extending that to developers too. I’d like to see action to crack down on bad practice, potentially banning rogue developers from acquiring planning permission on sites they have cleared illegally, but that would require a change in legislation.
To make development work for the capital, we need it to be done in partnership with local people, not bulldozed through in secret.
John Biggs is the Labour mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.