Greenwich Peninsula social cleansing: Council loses battle to keep developer document secret

Quintain plan for Greenwich Peninsula

Residents on Greenwich Peninsula have won an 18-month battle to force Greenwich Council to release a document that influenced its decision to scrap all ‘affordable’ housing on a key development there.

A tribunal has told the council it should release “viability assessments” which prompted it to cut a requirement for developer Knight Dragon to include affordable housing on Peninsula Quays, on the west side of the peninsula facing Canary Wharf, in exchange for building more on the east side.

Quintain plans for Greenwich PeninsulaGreenwich said its decision – backed by seven councillors, including current leader Denise Hylandwas taken after an independent assessment showed the scheme wouldn’t be viable if Knight Dragon had to build social housing, and that it needed to be approved quickly so Knight Dragon could get £50m in grants.

The plans include a private school, “high-end private residential” units at Drawdock Road, and a four/five star hotel at Ordnance Crescent.

But all affordable properties will now be pushed to the south, towards City Peninsula and Greenwich Millennium Village, rather than being spread evenly across the peninsula, which had been council policy since 2004.

To make up for this effective social cleansing of Peninsula Quays, new developments to the far south of the Dome – around where the City Peninsula tower now sits – will see levels of affordable housing shoot up to between 54% and 58%, mostly for social rent rather than shared ownership.

Residents of City Peninsula and Greenwich Millennium Village asked Greenwich Council to release the viability assessment under the Environmental Information Regulations – similar to the Freedom of Information Act.

But Greenwich refused, and appealed against an Information Commissioner decision that it should release the assessment.

Greenwich’s appeal meant the case ended up at a tribunal, which sat over three days last October and November. The council hired an external lawyer, Christopher Knight from 11 KBW, at a cost quoted in October at £2,200.

The council could appeal and take the case to a further tribunal – at further cost – but it may face an uphill battle considering the comprehensive nature of the judgment against it. You can read the full judgment here.

Quintain plans for Peninsula Quays site

Key passages include:

First, the number of affordable homes to be provided on this enormous development, as well as their location, is an important local issue on which reasonable views are held strongly on both sides.

Second, this is a case where a company, robust enough to take on the development of a huge site over a period of 20 years… immediately asks to be relieved of a planning obligation freely negotiated by its predecessor. It justifies this change on the basis of a downturn in house prices it knew about at the time of purchase, using a valuation model that looks at current values only and does not allow for change in the many factors that may affect a valuation over time. It seems to us that in those circumstances the public interest in openness about the figures is very strong.

One argument against disclosure of the redacted information was that those receiving it would be unlikely to understand it. In our experience this is never a useful objection to disclosure under FOIA or EIR. It is increasingly open to question whether the public should be expected to accept the “expert view” without opportunity to see the supporting factual evidence.

Indeed, the final paragraph of the judgment is one that should ring alarm bells as to how Greenwich’s planning system works.

It points out that the eight-strong planning board – which included three cabinet members and was chaired by the Labour group’s chief whip – that approved the decision to cut affordable housing at Peninsula Quays had no more information than the general public.

Effectively, they were taking the decision on trust, and hadn’t been shown the viability assessment in question. Should they have asked for more details?

“It is not for us to say what depth of information Councillors should have expected or asked for, although we note that at least one Councillor would have preferred more detail about the appraisal,” the judgment says. That councillor, who is not named, was Hayley Fletcher, who voted against the proposal and later left the council citing problems with bullying in the ruling Labour group.

The tribunal’s decision comes as Knight Dragon consults on plans to increase housing on the peninsula from 10,000 to 15,000 – with big question marks over whether anyone will actually be able to afford the new properties. (Labour candidate Matt Pennycook and The Guardian’s Dave Hill have written about this.)

More broadly speaking, it’s also a significant decision in terms of councils’ relationships with developers as they struggle to cope with the demands of an overheated and little-regulated property market.

Last year, Southwark Council was told to release parts of a similar viability assessment for redeveloping the Heygate Estate near Elephant & Castle. The Greenwich decision may now give confidence to others who want to find out more about the relationship between their local councils and developers.

The members of the planning board who supported the decision: Denise Hyland (Labour, then cabinet member for regeneration, now council leader); Ray Walker (Labour, then chief whip, remains planning chair); Steve Offord (then cabinet member for housing), Sajid Jawaid (then cabinet member for community services, no longer a councillor), Clive Mardner (Labour), Geoff Brighty (Conservative), Dermot Poston (Conservative, no longer a councillor).

Hayley Fletcher (Labour, no longer a councillor) voted against, then-leader Chris Roberts (Labour, no longer a councillor) was absent.

15 comments

  1. “One argument against disclosure of the redacted information was that those receiving it would be unlikely to understand it.”

    Staggering. Either this ‘argument’ was put forward by the Council, in which case they should be ashamed, or else £2,200 really doesn’t get you a lot of lawyer these days.

  2. I’m with you, Larry. Shenanigans like this happen easily when people think that democracy means iron rule by a majority, and so do not listen to minority voices, feel a need to keep dealings secret, and, in the end, try to silence or bully other voices. So frustrating.

  3. Suzanne. Our language is partly to blame. These are elected representatives, servants. They don’t rule me – I am a majority of 1. They should represent my interests and those of the borough. Power is often sough and found by those least deserving of it. They appear to be either corrupt or inept. Im not sure which I wish it was….maybe its both.

  4. Darryl – I wasn’t around at the time so purely commenting in a personal capacity. I actually don’t think GMVA was involved (not seen paperwork). Prefer it if you don’t describe the Peninsula as ‘social cleansing.’ The term is a inaccurate mockery of a horrific human tragedy which is barely history. No one has lived on the Peninsula Marshes for over 100yrs and no one is going to be driven out.

    My own view: As for ‘affordable’ housing, I don’t think anyone in London or elsewhere really expects cheap rents next to the O2? Swanky flats facing Canary Wharf, who would think?

    If high value properties were not commercially feasible, then many (including I) would brand the regeneration and Dome project as a failure. There are already gated developments (Cator Estate) and ‘Mansion Tax’ houses in Greenwich and Blackheath. Not all Peninsula residents view the changes as ‘polarising’ anyway and we are most affected however development pans out.

    Further to my comments on the Greenwich Time thread, badly conceived community services without the buy-in of local people is more likely to polarise, divide and repel existing and new residents, rather than housing policy. I thought it was interesting that Matthew Pennycook chose to write about the importance of a ‘social inclusive community’ without any making references to the exclusive Christian school he’s been involved in planning. A school where local children from the Peninsula, East Greenwich and Charlton, who attend ‘socially inclusive’ non-faith schools like Millennium which he cited, will be considered last for a place.

    Another fine example of Greenwich’s ‘consultation’ practices and an FOI tribunal!!! More symptoms of unnecessary bizarre paranoia and secrecy. I almost think Greenwich Council’s vision is for us to live in ‘The Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Greenwich.’

  5. Darryl – I know I should shut up, and am probably nit picking. You might have mentioned that there were a number of opposition speakers at the Planning Meeting. There were several people from GMV and CPR (including the person who put the FOI request forward) and two of the then Peninsula Ward Councillors. To be honest I can’t remember much detail of it.

  6. Personally I think the majority of the Planning Committee must be deemed to be corrupt rather than inept to rule against the disclosure of this information. Whether it be for financial or social reasons (or both) all of the committee members should have asked for more information and the results should have been published. The citizens of Greenwich have a right to freedom of information . This rather makes a mockery of Matthews Pennycook’s role as trustee of the Greenwich Housing Rights

  7. I’d say it’s complacency rather than corruption, which is a strong allegation to throw about of which we have no proof, SAB. For a start, the two Tories voted with the majority of the board on the proposal, which hardly points to some conspiracy.

    While this decision fits nearly in with some terrible planning decisions taken over recent years, the ramifications are not simply parochial – a mistake made by both councillors and some of their critics.

  8. Darryl is right – although this is one of the many elements which is informing some of the wider discussion (and protests) on housing issues London wide. I don’t want to say anything positive about it – but it may be a building block towards some sort of change for the good. I am also not sure if ‘complacency’ is the right word because I felt there was an atmosphere at the meeting which made me think that most of them were very uneasy about the decision – and hope I didn’t imagine that. I note the comment about Matt Pennycook above but he was not involved in this Planning Board meeting and its decision at all – the only councillors involved were those on the Planning Board who took the decision and two of the three local ward Peninsula councillors who went along with residents to object and speak against the application. This meeting was before the Parliamentary Selection had taken place.

  9. it will be interesting to see how this unfolds, there are potentially two issues here the decision itself and its implications and why (and the governance around) RBG council are so keen to keep these documents secret. I think this, at least to some extent points towards a lazy and uncourageous planning system in Greenwich. On a number of other we have seen the council capitulate in the face of developers big and small seemly on the basis of fearing the loss of prestigous projects or the fear of costly appeals by developers if they don’t get their own way. I don’t like this reasoning but i can at least see where it is comming from and undertand that public budgets have to be balanced on the basis of the best overall outcome. What i find harder to understand is why they then choose to spend council money on blocking a FOIA request.

    Mr Pennycook might not have been invloved (or selected) at the time of the original decision but it sid seem ironic to me that yesterday he was tweeting his complaints about tory plans to make it easier for developers to build fewer affordable homes while ignoring his own councils failure to safeguard current requirements. Sometimes you do have to get your own house in order before starting to throw muck around.

    Finally can somebody please direct me to where exactly the downturn in house prices that both Dragon Knight and previously Berkeley homes have referenced when claiming that exisiting pp made their developments economically unviable? I know a lot of people who be interested in these reduced price homes!

  10. Mary – as JJnse7 has pointed, Matthew Pennycook’s recent musings may appear somewhat disingenuous. SAB was making the point that he holds a senior position of authority on a housing charity, whilst he represents a council that has spent 18months fighting a fairly ordinary FOI request on housing. Furthermore, Mr Pennycook chose to write, in my view a grandstanding piece about Knight Dragon’s affordable housing intentions only a few days before the FOI Tibunal judgement – which his council tried to block, after giving the go ahead to the developer. Are we really to think Cllr Pennycook wasn’t aware of the FOI? To only add, I pointed out that Mr Pennycook publicly makes much of communities being ‘socially inclusive’ in his words, which entirely contradicts other council plans he is involved with.

    This comes on top of the Living Wage debacle that Darryl and others have highlighted, and I note Mr Pennycook is keen to highlight his work experience at the Fair Pay Network on his website. Whatever the complexities of affordable housing, the FOI stinks. The Living Wage and Greenwich council is just embarrassing. JJnse7 is right, you do have to get your own house in order before starting to throw muck around. Nothing against Mr Pennycook, but given he is standing for election to represent us in Westminster, people are likely to take close interest.

  11. I doubt that £2,200 would even cover the cost of an email from barristers at 11KBW chambers – not including the costs of the instructing solicitors. Counsel’s wedge is also frequently paid through the instructing solicitors so this figure may be somewhat disingenuous and misleading. What we need is either another FOI request requiring the Council to disclose the *total* legal costs (fees and disbursements) of appealing this matter. Or the Council could simply tell us, without being coerced.

  12. Hi all, I have been taking the “FOI” forward for the past 18 months! This is quite a saga with a number of twists and turns! Just one is that developers Knight Dragon commissioned BNP Paribas Real Estate to undertake a viability assessment to make their case that the agreed affordable housing was not now viable. The council commissioned Marsh & Co to undertake an independent assessment of the BNP Paribas report and judged that it was acceptable and the that variation to the S106 should go ahead. This advice informed the Officers report presented to the councillors recommending they accept the variation. The councillors did not have sight of either report. Whilst preparing for the hearing I came across a further report commissioned by Greenwich “Affordable Housing Viability Assessment” essentially updating their policy on affordable housing across the borough (to Dec 2012). This report recommended that the council “should adopt a site based requirement for affordable housing for at least 35% affordable and that on some sites up to 60% should be achievable. No mention was made of the role of affordable housing grant (which amounted to £50m in the case of the peninsula plots). Clearly the advice is in conflict with the position taken by the council on affordable housing on the peninsula at the same time. And who were the authors of this report recommending up to 50% affordable housing? Well BNP Paribas AND Marsh & Co of course! Link to the report below:

    http://www.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/1588/affordable_housing_viability_assessment_report_-_updated_december_2012.

  13. Since this was published three huge council estates a fourth. Morris walk estate is now in the running to be sold,sheltered accomadtion,schools all sold to the developer.WHERE have the residents of these estates gone, shipped out to the back of beyond. Complain and you have made yourself intentionality homeless. Labour council is a disgrace , turned their backs on the very people who voted them in. Labour is no more.

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