Redevelopment in Waltham Forest: the shocking fate of Section 106 ‘planning gain’ UPDATED

In recent years, there has been growing unease in Waltham Forest about the character of redevelopment, particularly in terms of the balance between public and private good. While LBWF in theory is charged with advancing the interests of local residents, there is a feeling that all too often it has tiptoed around the big property companies now operating in the borough, meaning that what is built tends to cater for those with ready money, and overlook those without.

Readers will no doubt have their own views on these matters, but one important detail that has escaped much attention is the so called ‘planning gain’ that accrues to LBWF as building work continues, and may be used to soften the rougher edges of change.

There are several mechanisms involved, but one of the most important stems from Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and the agreements between local authorities and developers that it sanctions.

In short, Section 106 is designed to make ‘a development proposal acceptable in planning terms, that would not otherwise be acceptable’; involves detailed and site-specific negotiation; and typically (though not inevitably) produces in each case a monetary transfer from the developer to the local authority, which the latter then can use to finance a stated policy, over an agreed period of time.

Perhaps indicatively, LBWF publishes relatively little on this subject, but a recent Freedom of Information Act inquiry has uncovered the broad details of what transpired in 2015 and 2016.

In all, during these years, LBWF completed 214 Section 106 agreements worth £6.3m. Some of these agreements earmarked monies for very specific matters (‘consultation and implementation on an extension to the Tenby Road controlled parking zone’), others for broader ongoing policy initiatives such as Mini-Holland, employment and training, and improvement of the public realm. About one fifth related to building ‘affordable housing within the Council’s administrative area’.

So there was a substantial amount of money in play, and in theory it should have provided ongoing benefits for residents. However, the reality was very different. One problem centred on collection. Thus, analysis of the 100 odd agreements completed in 2015 reveals that 20 months later, there were still no less than 46 where no money had changed hands at all. However, even in cases where payment proceeded smoothly, progression to realising the objectives targeted was by no means assured. Indeed, as of 31 October 2017 (the most recent date for which information is available) expenditure stemming from the 2015 and 2016 agreements amounted to a mere £54,000, less than one per cent of the total nominally available. And, surprisingly, the figures for the money set aside to build affordable housing were even less impressive – £1,181,660 generated by the agreements versus a spend of…exactly nothing, not a penny.

In mitigation, it needs to be recognised that Section 106 agreements are sometimes complex, with staged payments; public spending on say, affordable housing, cannot necessarily be turned on at the drop of a hat; and in this period other local authorities had equally indifferent records.

But that said, LBWF’s performance can only be called lamentable. Most obviously, given the homelessness in the borough, the large sum earmarked for affordable housing could, and should, have been moved though the system with unyielding urgency, and used to alleviate suffering.

Turning briefly to the underlying causes, it is unnecessary to look much further than the accommodation which LBWF has made with the developers. Waltham Forest is experiencing large scale in-migration. The sites available for housebuilding and commercial activity are numerous but ultimately finite. Everyone in the property sector knows that those who get in early will earn a mint. So cognisant of its planning powers, LBWF should be bargaining from a position of strength. But it hasn’t worked out like that, and in the excitement of the moment – the talk of billions of pounds of business, overseas conferences, swish lunches, festivals, ‘a borough of culture’, trendy estate agents, expensive coffee, and of course the alleged arrival of the so called ‘rising prosperity’ demographic (young, well-educated and affluent people who want to settle and perhaps start a family), the Cabinet seems to have lost its bottle, and let the developers emerge with the upper hand.

All in all, this is a disappointing outcome, to put it mildly. Because, in a nutshell, and as expert opinion unanimously concurs, development that is balanced, i.e. caters for everyone in the population, is a good thing, but development that is unbalanced, i.e. privileges some at the expense of others, certainly is not.

UPDATE

Cllr. John Moss, who is one of the few publicly to raise concerns about Section 106 in Waltham Forest, most notably at Scrutiny, has written in to highlight another worrying aspect of LBWF’s stance, its penchant for ‘renegotiating’ existing agreements as time passes:

‘I have fought tooth and nail for the Stadium Sports Centre at the Walthamstow Stadium. In the original application, the Officer’s Report to Planning Committee and in the S106, this was supposed to be built and fitted out by L&Q and handed to a Community Sports Trust with a £50,000pa endowment from L&Q for the first five years of operation. All this was supposed to happen before the 200th (of 296) home was occupied. When it became clear during construction that this wasn’t happening, I challenged Martin Esom and Lucy Shomali [Director, Regeneration and Growth] to enforce this.

L&Q then responded with an improved “affordable” offer (50%) and as part of that the Council has reduced L&Q’s obligation to something meaningless. I did get this to be heard by the Planning Committee and there are, allegedly, two unoccupied properties at the development, pending the opening of the Sports Centre, which is still am empty shell long after the scheme was completed. Nor is the Sports Centre going to be handed to the Community. It will be a commercial lease to Greenwich Leisure and our Council is lending them £1m to fund the fit out!

It is arguable that a proper re-appraisal of the Viability Assessment could have yielded more than 50% affordable, but that was actually ‘set aside’ in return for the increased offer. All in all I think we’ve been taken for a ride!’

 

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LBWF Leader Clare Coghill’s MIPIM muddle (2)

Redeveloping Waltham Forest: some experiences from the periphery

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