Mount Pleasant, the scene of London's latest row over affordable housing. Photo: Getty
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London's planning regulations are weaker – and affordable housing has suffered

We're going to have to be clear what homes we want, clear how we're going to get them – and clear when to stare our opponents down.

This article was originally published on the New Statesman's sister site about cities, CityMetric. Follow it on Twitter @CityMetric

With the coalition's term nearly up, and an end to Boris Johnson's mayoralty not far behind, it's fair to conclude that Londoners in search of an affordable home have little to thank them for.

Alongside building new council homes, local authorities like Islington, where I’m a Labour councillor, have spent recent years using our planning powers to get affordable housing in new developments. But we've been fighting against a mayor and government who have chosen to methodically dismantle affordable housing in the planning system.

They’ve reversed a trend that began in 1992 when the government of the day, averse to the state building homes directly, used planning policy to get affordable homes from the private sector. An early legal challenge to this principle was defeated in the Court of Appeal, and the Labour government elected in 1997 strengthened it while in office. In the 2000s, London mayor Ken Livingstone put his London Plan to bold use by requiring 50 per cent of the capital's new homes to be affordable.

But then Boris Johnson came to City Hall, and the coalition government came to Westminster. Not only have they been averse to greater public sector building; they also believe planning policies that interfere in the market should be sidelined. And their prime target, and the prime irritant to both them and many of their friends in the industry, was the requirement for affordable housing.

So it came as no surprise that, soon after Johnson was elected mayor in 2008, he scrapped Livingstone's 50 per cent target. Two years later, the new Conservative Chancellor undermined the essence of affordable housing by allowing “affordable rents” to be up to 80 per cent of the market rate. (By comparison, social rents in my borough average around 30 per cent).

In 2012, the new National Planning Policy Framework sidelined affordable housing still further, not least by putting financial viability centre-stage in development. Viability wizardry, that is often complex but rarely transparent, is now routinely used to justify reducing affordable housing numbers: by underestimating sales values, say, or overstating costs like land.

We saw these changes to the planning system exploited at full-throttle by landowner Royal Mail at Mount Pleasant. It applied to us speculatively (there was no developer) with an application that at one point offered as little as 12 per cent affordable housing, alongside “affordable” rents reportedly up to £2,800 per month. To justify this, it used viability trickery that skewed numbers including an overstated land value.

Just to be clear about the implication of that last point: Royal Mail, as planning applicant, was justifying less affordable housing partly on the basis of Royal Mail, as landowner, receiving more money for the land. Seriously. We fought them tooth and nail, but at the request of Royal Mail, Boris Johnson took the application out of our hands and waved it through.

Even as Mount Pleasant was making its way through the planning system, yet more changes were hacking away at councils' ability to insist on affordable housing. Since 2013, the government has allowed developers who already have planning permission to go back to councils to renegotiate the affordable housing requirements downwards on viability grounds. Meanwhile, they have allowed offices to be converted into flats with no need for planning permission at all – and thus with no affordable housing.

In boroughs like Islington, this change to office conversion rules has spurred developers chasing soaring residential values to evict businesses and charities to make way for private flats. We threatened legal action and won protection for some of the offices in my borough – yet the government now wants to extend this policy to all industrial buildings. And whilst the very centre of London (including the City and West End) has so far had an exemption, the government intends to scrap this next year: even the Gherkin and Cheesegrater could be flipped to flats with no planning permission (and no affordable housing, of course).

Most recently, as 2014 drew to a close, the government said it would stop councils claiming money towards affordable housing from small developments. That would a policy through which Islington has accumulated over £8m in just two years, with only a handful of quibbles from developers.

Ministers also brought in a new wheeze – “vacant building credits” – which seem to allow developers to skip affordable housing on new floorspace, so long as it's equivalent to vacant floorspace that already exists on their site. It's really not clear how this last policy will work; but however the cards fall, it will mean fewer affordable homes.

All these changes have conspired to make it far harder for willing politicians in London to secure affordable housing through the planning system. We’ve come a long way from the relatively halcyon days of a decade ago, when councils and developers both largely knew what affordable housing was, when there were clear targets, and when exceptions were limited.

With political support, the pendulum has truly swung in the developers' and landowners' favour – putting profits and land values ahead of genuinely-affordable homes. Even when local councils stick to their guns, developers can be confident of a sympathetic hearing if they ask the mayor to call their planning application in, or if they appeal a locally-refused application to the Secretary of State's permissive planning inspectorate.

We must swing the pendulum back. A new government and Mayor should help councils build. The historical record shows we need an active public sector if we're going to build enough new and affordable homes – but it should also reset the terms for dealing with developers, through clear affordable housing requirements that are robustly enforced.

An approach like this will adjust land values down, which of course will lead some to complain. But if we can't accept land values falling, then we could never introduce any planning obligations. At the moment, landowners know they can pitch for a huge windfall on their land; and the developer who buys it can be confident they will meet this cost and still make their profit by aggressively squeezing affordable housing out.

If we're going to build the homes that Londoners actually need, a public home-building programme needs to sit alongside an approach to development that is radically different from where we are now. That means we're going to have to be clear what homes we want, clear how we're going to get them – and clear when to stare our opponents down.

Cllr James Murray is Islington Council's executive member for housing and development, and a member of the Labour party

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.