On Tuesday, after months of negotiations, the Council’s Planning Board will determine whether or not to approve Knight Dragon’s revisions to the 2004 Greenwich Peninsula masterplan. The proposals are wide-ranging but the core issues at stake are an increase in the total number of permitted “units” across the site from 10,010 to 15,720 (a 57 per cent increase) and a corresponding drop in the overall proportion of affordable homes from 38 per cent to 25 per cent (22.7 in this application to be added to those already in the pipeline).
When set against the principles underpinning the original Peninsula vision and the collective expectations of the community, Knight Dragon’s offer falls disappointingly short – a view I expressed candidly to their representatives when they presented their final proposals to me last week.
That is not to say that the proposals do not contain much that is to be commended. The plans for a new transport hub (and cycle superhub) at North Greenwich, new and enhanced open spaces, better community facilities, a riverside running track and improvements to the Thames footpath and cyclepath will improve the quality of life for those living in the area.
A renewed commitment to tenure blind development and the spreading of affordable housing across each of the five new residential neighbourhoods, with binding minima in each, is to be warmly welcomed, not least because it will reverse the effective segregation of lower-income tenants from wealthy homebuyers facilitated by the Council’s 2013 decision to allow a variation of deed on 11 of the site’s plots.
At a time when market rents in the SE10 area are rising remorselessly, the proposal for 70 per cent of the homes within the affordable housing envelope (2,050 in total) to be let at local Greenwich target rents is also a significant prize. For a two bedroom flat that equates to rent of £184 per week compared to up to £412 per week if they were let at “Affordable Rent” levels of anything up to 80 per cent market rate. In addition, the target rents in this instance are also inclusive of service charges.
Lastly, the Review Mechanism contained in the planning agreement may ultimately yield additional affordable housing across the site if the developer’s rate of return increases over the lifetime of the development. Given how central the mechanism is to any chance of increasing the overall proportion of affordable housing across the site to come I’d urge Planning Board members to be absolutely certain the mechanism is robust enough to secure future improvements before making their decision.
Yet despite these positive developments few local residents will feel that what’s being offered in terms of affordable housing and infrastructure justifies the staggering increase in density and building height for which permission is being sought.
As I’ve written previously, there is a reasonable case for looking again at the total numbers of permitted homes across the development site. Over the last decade London’s housing crisis has become more acute and the existing planning consent for 10,010 homes is now well below the Mayor’s target for the Greenwich Peninsula Opportunity Area of 13,500 homes (although it should be noted that the Opportunity Area encompasses a far larger area than the Peninsula application site).
Similarly, when considered within the current financial, political and planning environment few would argue that it is still realistic to expect levels of affordable housing pushing 40 per cent. In the circumstances, refusing to compromise on the affordable housing levels set out in the original 2004 masterplan risks seeing the development stall just as it did in the 2000s. Given what’s on offer that might seem like an appealing prospect to those of us that believe strongly in the ideal of socially inclusive and balanced communities but there is no escaping the fact that it would be a disastrous outcome for the thousands of local people desperately in need of a decent, socially rented home to raise a family and build a life in. Put simply, 2,928 affordable homes are ultimately better than none.
I wish it were otherwise and with a government committed to prioritising capital investment in social housing and a Mayor willing to think more creatively about how we leverage in additional investment it might be. Yet the sad truth is that in a world of fixed Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) costs where government social housing grant has all but disappeared (the Coalition Government slashed capital funding for affordable housebuilding in England from £3bn a year under the previous administration to just £450m) and in which increased weight has been given to viability assessments via the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) Greenwich, like local authorities across London, will continue to fail to achieve affordable housing target levels established in a different, more progressive, era. The housing-related measures introduced by the Chancellor in his Summer Budget, particularly the four year 1 per cent cut to social housing rents, have simply exacerbated what was already a dire situation.
Don’t the public subsidies that have been ploughed into the site over the years make a difference? It is true that significant public money was injected into the Peninsula to decontaminate and remediate the site (although a decade on it appears that much of the work was relatively superficial). It’s also the case that several agencies, including the Greater London Authority, Transport for London and HM Treasury, will receive significant sums from the development of the Peninsula over the coming years. I dearly wish they would consider re-cycling a share of those receipts back into the project to help boost levels of affordable housing but none appear willing.
As things stand, the scheme, even after the increase in height and density that Knight Dragon are requesting, has a deficit in excess of £1bn. The limitations of Financial Viability Assessments (FVA) are well known but to the best of my knowledge the fundamentals of the FVA that accompanies the application, which Knight Dragon made publicly available some weeks ago, and that has been examined by the council’s Independent Assessor, has not been challenged.
In the circumstances, a degree of compromise between Knight Dragon and the council was therefore inevitable. Even the most laudable regeneration schemes in the most favourable of conditions require planners and politicians to weigh sometimes-conflicting goals and to work through agonising dilemmas. What makes things so difficult for the Council in this instance (and far too many others over recent years) is that the application is being determined in a financial, political and planning environment that has arguably never been more unfavourable to those attempting to secure public benefit from regeneration schemes. Knowing the inhospitable context in which the negotiations with Knight Dragon have taken place the Council have almost certainly secured the best deal available.
With the circumstances so unfavourable and the deck stacked so heavily in favour of the developer, surely the Council should draw a line in the sand and refuse the revised masterplan outright? That may well be what transpires on Tuesday, but those calling for an outright refusal need to be aware that it’s a course of action that entails considerable risk. A refusal may well force Knight Dragon to think again and return to the negotiating table with an improved offer but it is just as likely to provoke the Mayor of London to intervene and take the decision himself as he did with Convoys Wharf, Mount Pleasant and a host of other major schemes across our city – to the detriment, in my view, of the communities in question.
Perhaps most worryingly, a call-in by the Mayor may not simply lead to the application being approved as it stands. It could weaken it further by, for example, converting the 2,050 homes for rent at local Greenwich target rents secured by the Council as part of the agreement into Affordable Rent properties. It’s ultimately an assessment of risk verses reward, but having seen up close the level of housing need we face locally over recent months it’s not one that should be advocated flippantly.
Regeneration cannot come at any price – the question facing us is whether, knowing the dilemmas and how the current offer departs from its predecessor, the price is worth paying in this instance in order to secure decent, affordable homes for thousands of local families. Reluctantly, I think on balance it is but that doesn’t make it any less of a bitter pill to swallow.