New legal loophole allows developers to shirk affordable housing obligations. Photo: Christopher Furlong, Getty
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Developers able to demolish affordable housing provision

A new law is allowing property developers to wriggle out of their affordable housing obligations.

A Bill that was quietly approved last year is allowing property developers to get out of their contractual agreements with local authorities to build or fund affordable homes.

The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 introduced new guidelines last April for developers to appeal their affordable housing obligations, if they could prove they would not make a “competitive return” on their developments if they adhered to them.

These obligations require developers to include a prescribed number of affordable homes in residential complexes they build, or else negotiate paying a subsidy to fund those affordable homes being built elsewhere in the nearby area.

Many people would agree that for councils to confer some responsibility for affordable homes onto developers in this way is only fair. After all, left to their own devices, most developers seek to maximise profits by focusing almost exclusively on building lucrative executive accommodation.

The new rules, shoe-horned into the Town and Country Planning Act, mean that residential developers can fight their way out of their obligations, despite having agreed them as a condition of gaining planning approval.

A developer simply has to argue that honouring their agreed contribution towards affordable housing has become commercially “unviable” for their business's development.

The government has introduced this loophole based on the idea that differing economic conditions between the planning stage of a development and its construction or completion can render initial agreements to build or fund affordable housing “unrealistic”.

Not only does the new appeals process seem unfair in offloading all commercial risk from developers on to local councils, but it also appears open to exploitation by rapacious developers who might present cases of confected “economic unviability” in order to maximise profits.

Some recent waivers issued by councils are worth examining. Last October Oldham Council was left £450,000 out of pocket after waiving the subsidy payment that developers Wiggett Construction had agreed to pay in lieu of making a fifth of homes in their new site in Greenfield “affordable”.

The company had originally agreed to pay £700,000 in three stages. Having paid the first installment of around £230,000, the company was due to pay the second upon the sale of the 45th property on the site. Oldham Metropolitan Council decided to waive the subsidy when Wiggett was just one house sale away from that benchmark, however, leading to outrage from local residents.

The same council also allowed another developer, Tamewater Developments, to escape paying more than £280,000 in agreed affordable housing subsidy earlier this month.

According to Construction News, 10 appeals are currently under consideration by the Planning Inspectorate to reduce or eliminate affordable housing obligations under the new law.

Among them are bids to remove requirements for 290 affordable homes in a Gloucestershire development and a £9 million contribution towards affordable housing in Blackpool.

As many developers are only just waking up to the possibilities of this new loophole, the impact on the number of affordable houses built is yet to be realised.

In order to appeal, developers must submit appropriate up-to-date evidence that overturns the original viability appraisal and indicates that they will not make a competitive return under current market conditions.

The crucial question is, of course, what benchmark profit margin equates to a “competitive" return? The government guidance does not spell it out. Industry experts suggest that most developers expect to make in the region of 20 per cent profit. Are local councils simply allowing developers to avoid paying their contribution towards affordable housing if it threatens their usual profit margin?

When the demand for affordable housing has reached such exorbitant and desperate levels as it has across the UK, developers should not be allowed to renege on promised contributions towards their provision whether it threatens their profit or not.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser