West Ham play their last game at Upton Park on 7th May, so the question of how the abandoned Boleyn Ground will be used is nearing its conclusion. The developers would like to send in the bulldozers immediately after the final whistle. I think they’d also like to get their planning permission signed-off before the London Mayoral election on 5th May and the potential uncertainty of a Sadiq Khan administration (although it’s a moot point how much difference that would make).
Another consultation period is currently open, during which Newham residents (and others) can comment on a revised offer on ‘affordable’ housing from the developers (Galliard Homes) who have been pressured into revising their original intention that 95% of the 842 new homes would be for private sale.
Leaving aside the emotional aspects of a place that for some of us is more than a potential building site, the Boleyn Ground case is now unfolding as a textbook stitch up. It illustrates how an unholy alliance of the private property industry, self-serving politicians and supine local government departments exploit the planning system to pursue their vested interests to the detriment of genuine democracy, local communities and those in housing need.
There are currently 770 documents filed on-line relating to the Boleyn Ground planning application (ref. 14/02893/FUL). This deluge of paperwork is itself part of how the planning process excludes and alienates the public. It is simply impossible for people who can’t devote their lives to it to keep track of such a labyrinthine trail, much of which is written in a language that is deliberately opaque. Providing ‘planning consultancy’ services has become a multi-million pound adjunct to the property industry, with companies like Savills and CBRE giving supposedly objective advice to developers at a price that local community campaigns can never match and a volume they can never keep pace with. None of this verbiage serves the public interest, but that’s supposed to be safeguarded by public servants accountable to democratically elected politicians. But they are also prone to being befuddled and bamboozled, particularly when they’re subject to over-arching policy pressures such as the perceived urgency of attracting investment, meeting targets for home building and promoting so-called ‘regeneration’.
However, while there are reams of paper in the public domain devoted to arcane detail, some of the most important information relating to cases like the Boleyn Ground is kept hidden under the spurious justification of ‘commercial confidentiality’. This particularly applies to the calculations used to quantify how much ‘affordable’ housing is ‘viable’ within a given scheme. For years government and the development industry have connived in the deliberate obfuscation of language, policy and practice around the provision of non-market homes on new developments. As the Boleyn Ground case demonstrates, the reason for this is that developers, aided and abetted by some politicians and planners, want to build as little ‘social’ housing (however loosely defined) as they can get away with and have devised a smoke and mirrors process to justify it. It’s a scandal that they’re allowed to get away with this particularly when, as at the Boleyn Ground, part of the financial calculation involves the use of public money.
Even the Mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, who has been complicit in a long succession of policies that have worsened the housing crisis, challenged the original Galliard Homes proposal. In response, Savills, working on behalf of the developer, wrote to the Council on 15th October 2015 with a revised ‘offer’ that is the subject of the current consultation. This document (linked below) provides a classic example of how the development industry manipulates the planning process to serve its profit-making ends. The letter is couched in terms that combine tones of compromise with a veiled threat and is grotesquely dishonest. Having maintained a position for two years that no more than 5% ‘affordable’ housing is possible at the Boleyn Ground, at the eleventh hour the ‘generous’ developer finds some money down the back of the sofa and is able to suggest that 25% is possible! It’s claimed that this will deliver ‘significant planning benefits’, with the clear implication that these will be withdrawn if the Council refuses planning permission.
Despite the blandishments, the revised offer is little better than the original one and is again dripping with deception. 209 of the 842 homes are claimed as ‘affordable’, but of these, 125 (60%) will be at rent levels beyond the means of many in Newham, the borough with the lowest median income in London, but the fastest growing house prices. At 70% of the market level for a 1 or 2 bedroom home, or 50% for 3 bedrooms, ‘Affordable Rents’ at the Boleyn Ground will be about £1,000 a month. (It’s worth noting that a higher proportion of these are 3 bedroom flats because the developers will have calculated that Housing Benefit will cover a higher portion of the rent – in effect an indirect revenue subsidy.) The other 40% will be shared ownership or ‘intermediate’ homes, a form of tenure that has been repeatedly shown to be poor value for money for residents and inaccessible to most of those in housing need.
Despite the fact that the revised offer will clearly not benefit many, if any, of the 24,000 people on Newham’s housing waiting list, it has already secured the approval of the Council’s housing investment team, almost certainly an indication that Mayor Wales will also support it and – no doubt – claim political credit for having converted what he called an ‘unacceptable’ deal into a terrible one!
Letters of objection should still go to Newham Council by 18th Feb, c/o the case officer Christopher Paggi.