Westminster chief sets out housing vision

Cllr Nickie Aitken says borough 'won’t be short changed on affordable housing simply because a developer has paid too much for a site'

The leader of Westminster Council, Nickie Aiken, has delivered an impassioned speech on the borough’s current and future housing policy, setting out some ideas that could be highly significant for PCL developers.

“I have said before and I will keep on saying I do not want to preside over a borough where the housing market is polarised between multimillion properties for oligarchs and social housing estates, with not much in between,” said Aiken in the monologue, entitled Housing For All.

She went on to promise that the council’s new City Plan will “signal our openness to new ideas from developers about making the most efficient use of space while protecting our City’s heritage and distinctiveness…for example, we will not routinely resist adding extra floors to existing buildings.”

On affordable housing provision, there was this: “We want to work with developers who contribute to our community and who share our ambitions of long term community sustainability. But we are not going to swallow whole developers’ arguments that they can’t afford to deliver affordable housing because of viability. Economic viability must be married with community sustainability.

“We won’t be short changed on affordable housing simply because a developer has paid too much for a site. Of course we accept that developers need to make a profit. But we also need to recognise that developers must play their part in ensuring socially balanced developments. In Westminster it will be an essential precondition for making a profit.

We will not routinely resist adding extra floors to existing buildings

“We are not simply going to take the cheque from developers, as has often happened in previous years.  They will have to make on-site provision for affordable housing. It will be a rigorously applied policy:  at least thirty per cent of new homes must be affordable.”

The council chief went on to request “government intervention in resetting the framework for securing a fair share of economic value from developers for the community”, supporting a locally-set charge paid on net increases in floor space….

“New developments do put pressure on what we traditionally think of as physical and social infrastructure. They also benefit from that infrastructure. And they make a contribution to the costs of this infrastructure through the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).

“We also use S106 planning obligations to contribute towards the creation of sustainable communities and to mitigate the negative site-specific impacts of a development. The CIL is a simple mechanism that makes clear up front what a developer will be expected to pay.

“It is set by taking account of the costs of infrastructure needed and what developers can afford to pay. This brings welcome certainty into the process for both the Council and developer. It avoids delay and expense of exchanging reports by surveyors haggling over costs and values, often behind closed doors, a process that has risked bringing the planning system into disrepute.

“It is a good model for supporting affordable housing. By making developers pay specific, automatic contributions for affordable housing, both sides could reduce the amount of time spent negotiating S106 obligations and speed up decisions on planning applications.

“I would suggest a locally-set charge paid on net increases in floor space. It would be applied to all development rather than just residential, as is largely the case with section 106. This would establish a value that would be met by building on-site or, in specific circumstances where the council agrees that affordable housing cannot be delivered on-site, through a payment in lieu.

Instead of money it would deliver affordable homes

“I do not support a London-wide tariff which we believe to be unworkable and would slow down delivery because of the wide variation in viability conditions across the capital. It would also undermine our effort to deliver local homes for local people, the temptation would always be for a Mayor to take Westminster money and spend it somewhere else.

“The process for setting a tariff will allow a public dialogue between local authorities, local people and developers about the housing need of an area and how it should be met. This would have the certainty and speed of CIL, but instead of money it would deliver affordable homes.

“I know this kind of approach was suggested in the Government’s review of CIL led by Liz Peace. I am keen to progress this idea further with the Government.”

Full transcript here