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Christopher Worrall is a housing columnist for LFF. He is on the Executive Committee of the Labour Housing Group, Co-Host of the Priced Out Podcast, and Chair of the Local Government and Housing Member Policy Group of the Fabian Society. 

In an unsurprising turn of events Wandsworth Council’s planning committee refused yet another scheme on Tuesday 19th March. This time a 449-unit housing proposal that offered 50 per cent affordable when calculating habitable rooms. Starkly, 50 per cent of the affordable would have been for social rent. A huge loss to Wandsworth residents. And further evidence some comfortable local politicians fail to appreciate there is a housing shortage.

The Labour-led council has admirably claimed social housing is “the cornerstone” of their housing plans. But this did not collectively appear in practice. Cabinet Member for Housing, Aydin Dikerdem, said in their October 2023 press release that the council is seeking to “ensure property developers contribute towards our vision of a fairer borough for all”. Sadly, two of the Labour representatives on the committee didn’t share this vision. Whom instead sided with the Tory opposition, where the scheme ended up being refused by 6 votes to 4.

Since winning the election in 2022, Labour dominates the planning committee. Where they boast six elected representatives, after taking the council for the first time in 44 years. For a scheme that has been wading through the planning system for over a quarter of the Tories tenure, with an application made as long ago as 2012 being cited in the hearing, the outcome is nothing short of an embarrassment. After all the council has 9,793 households on its housing waiting list and 3,000 homeless children living in temporary accommodation.

It is apparent the Tory opposition were hellbent on shooting down any chances of the Labour administration getting anywhere near their mixed record on housing delivery. Over a ten-year period the council delivered a net total of 16,671 homes, of which only 1,001 (6 per cent) were for social rent and 1,980 for intermediate. Wandsworth had developed one home for every fifty residents, which had made it London’s third most pro-growth borough, at least between 2016-2019 when it was under Conservative control. The last administration were also responsible for it historically delivering 103% of its Housing Delivery Test target. A target the current Labour-led administration may struggle to match.

But after almost 12 years since the site’s first planning application, Barratt Homes put forward a five storey proposal on the previously developed land. It offered an improved social tenure split than the council’s currently adopted policy, only to be rejected by the committee against officer recommendation for approval. The decision was made in a calamitous fashion, where the arguments made were so spurious even the council’s own legal advisor couldn’t fathom the rationale.

NIMBY councillors claimed that Very Special Circumstances (VSC) should be applied in regard to the fact the site is in the dreaded Metropolitan Open Land. The council had applied a VSC in reasoning when the it rejected All England Club’s expansion of Wimbledon’s tennis courts. But in this instance such claims could not apply, as the Springfield Hospital site has been previously developed. This didn’t stop members of the committee throwing this mud at the wall as grounds for refusal again and again. Confusing the officers into a repetitive clarification on the matter.

More incredibly irrational arguments were made against the scheme’s density. The proposal was for five storeys, rather than four. I mean, god forbid it were five with a policy compliant affordable offering. Opposition leader Cllr Guy Humphries referred to the 2023 local plan as grounds that site was only suitable for four storeys of development, while bemoaning a block was too close to a listed building – 20 to 30 meters away. No doubt, all of which grounds that will make proponents of gentle density and missing middle housing blood boil. Throughout the committee, Cllr Humphries failed to recognise the absurdity of his own claims made when placed in the context of Wandsworth’s housing waiting list. Context that barely made it into any of his contributions.

Yet when challenged on the legal implications of his reasons for refusal concerning height by officers, Cllr Humphries and his NIMBY colleagues were unable to describe what harm the additional storey would indeed create. All relevant to the public purse in the event the scheme would ever be taken to appeal. Labour councillor Paul White, who appeared to join the Tories in blocking the 50 per cent affordable housing scheme, cited that if “we were gaining a lot” then he see could see the rationale for approval, but felt “we could do much better”. Much better seemed to be Paul White’s own personal opinion. Rather than anything based on current local policy. Nor on any basis or understanding of prevailing market conditions. A basis rarely considered in planning policy terms.

The refusal of 200 affordable homes has been made against a grim backdrop for London’s wider affordable housing scene. It has been widely reported that the construction of affordable homes in London is “grinding to a halt”. Figures on starts have been so low they have recently been described by the Chair of the G15 Group of Housing Associations, Geeta Nanda, as “terrifying”. Comments over the head of the Labour councillor and his NIMBY colleagues. Cllr Finna Ayres, a retired registered architect, complained about the number of single aspect units. Referring to the impact these have on deaf and visually impaired people when it comes to light for lip reading. One would have thought out of the 449 homes the scheme delivers there would be some part of the site where homes would suit these specialists needs more appropriately.

Notwithstanding the above, vacancy rates in Wandsworth are at excruciatingly low levels. Wandsworth has 152,000 dwellings as of 2023. Up from 150,000 the year before. Yet only an all-long-term vacancy number of homes standing at a grand total of 195. Long term vacancy meaning the number of homes on the council tax register recorded as being vacant longer than 6 months. This reflects a vacancy rate of just 0.1 per cent. In effect creating a landlord’s paradise for rent increases. So it comes as no surprise Wandsworth has seen apartments go for multi-millions of pounds and rents in Wandsworth Town rise 6.6% over a 3-month period last year alone. Statistics show London’s rents increased by 10.6% in the 12 months to February this year. Highest annual increase since records began.

This just goes to show the insanity of having a presumption in favour of development based on meaningless Housing Delivery Test results, which under Gove’s brownfield proposals apply to areas that are below 75%. Or in the case of previously developed brownfield land 95%. I would argue any incoming Labour government needs to put in place simper rules resulting in something stronger than a presumption in favour, at the very least, where the long-term vacancy rate is below 4 per cent. In addition to density bonuses where affordable housing provision is policy compliant.

It must be noted that following Wandsworth’s update to Policy LP23 Affordable Housing, which claimed to strengthen the provision of homes for social rent for local people, developers of new housing are required to provide at least 50 per cent of dwellings as affordable homes on site. The proportion of all new affordable homes must be “genuinely affordable”, as stated in their Regulation 18 notice regarding their local plan. It now states a prohibitive preference for a 70:30 split. An update many in the market see as the council effectively shutting up shop for doing business given increased construction costs. Rises that have seen material costs not so long ago reaching 40-year highs following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

One must recognise the chair of the committee’s efforts to have a reasonable debate. Cllr Tony Belton remarked that there were some who felt the proposed use would be better than what is currently found on the site. And the fact that the Labour-led council has placed more emphasis on building homes. He showed the patience of a saint in dealing with the NIMBY lobby’s absurd efforts to make reasoned arguments in policy terms, which was embarrassing for everyone else in the room except themselves.

It was clear that the majority of Labour councillors supported the scheme, which was incredulously sent down by a couple of NIMBY outriders who doffed a Tory cap on the night. Nevertheless, it is sad to see any Labour councillors back the blockers. In particular those standing side by side with its Tory opposition against a policy-compliant scheme are particularly shameful. There is no moral high ground opposing schemes that deliver the locally decided required amounts of affordable homes. Housing delayed is, after all, housing denied. Not to mention running the risk of having to award appellants costs should it go to appeal and they lose due to weak reasons for refusal that goes against the council’s own legal advice.

But ultimately the Tory committee members got their way, alongside the two Labour councillors who had aided and abetted their NIMBYism. Collectively they believed they knew better than the council’s professional team of officers, contrary to Cllr Belton’s eyes, who believed officer opinion did “meet the bill”.

Ultimately, homes that could have housed a number of the borough’s 3,000 homeless children, or deaf and blind, have now been blocked. Blocked by less than a handful of Labour councillors, pushing their own Labour-led council’s housing delivery record 200 homes further out of reach.

For now, this refusal presents the insane but sad reality of why the current system is more effective as a political football, than it is at regulating our land uses. It demonstrates well and truly how dysfunctional our planning system really is. A system that not only remains the single greatest obstacle to our economic growth. But also a system that prevents housing from being built where it is most needed. A system, many would argue, needs much more than just a discrete number of targeted changes.

The post Nimbyism on Wandsworth council shows why we need planning reform appeared first on Left Foot Forward: Leading the UK’s progressive debate.

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