[24 August 2013 This post may—subject to other people’s comments—end up on the JustSpace website but at the moment is just my own first rather rushed comment on the situation. Thanks to Robin Brown for some corrections/improvements 25 August.]
The Mayor of London published in 2012 some alterations he wanted to make to the 2011 London Plan, mainly to bring it into line with the coalition government’s National Planning Policy Framework. Just Space and many others responded to the consultation about these changes and then took part in hearings (Examination in Public -EiP) last autumn [ Earlier post on the EiP ]. The Inspector who held the hearings said he expected to report in January 2013 but his report was long delayed… (Eventually we may find out why). The Mayor rejects outright the Inspector’s main proposed change but our arguments failed to persuade even the Inspector on the central issue: that housing policy should prioritise the worsening needs of low- and middle-income Londoners. If the Mayor gets his way, the priority will be maximum output of housing units in total and, within that, of “affordable” rented units with rents at 65-80% of market rent levels.
Rent levels in “affordable” housing
The major focus of the 2012 EiP was on alterations proposed to the plan to bring it into line with the coalition government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England and various other contextual changes. Our main target in this was to challenge the applicability in London of a new government definition of “affordable housing”: housing to be let at rents up to 80% of the level of local open-market rents. This new definition would, of course, put housing in London out of the reach of poor households and, in many Boroughs, out of the reach of middle- and some quite high-earning households. These new rents were to become the variable required by policy and would supercede the prevailing social rents (also known as ‘target rents’ charged by Councils and Housing Associations at (in London) much lower and fairly affordable levels). Many organisations thus came together to challenge the Mayor.
The alterations were technically called Revised Early Minor Alterations (REMA).
Just Space, the London Tenants Federation (LTF) and others argued strongly that the new, high, ‘affordable housing’ rents would totally fail to meet the mounting needs of large proportions of Londoners without growing reliance on housing benefit—and that government restriction of these benefits coupled with a cap for each household on the total of all benefits meant that this safety valve was not available. We therefore called for the retention of existing definitions of affordability as expressed in ‘social rents’ and for ‘social housing’ to continue to have its own separate targets (and monitoring of outputs).
The Inspector concluded that the Mayor’s proposed alteration was not based upon evidence but “… is a pragmatic approach in the circumstances.” (Inspector’s Report 2013 §13) On that rather frail—and highly arguable—ground he decided not to recommend a change.
The Inspector did, however, recommend a change to a related proposal by the Mayor, to prevent Boroughs from capping rent levels of affordable housing at levels lower than the “affordable” level—something which Islington and Tower Hamlets had already started to do. This prohibition had attracted the ire of many Boroughs, nine of whom (a mixture of Conservative and Labour controlled) formed a consortium to object: Brent, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Islington, Southwark, Tower Hamlets Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster City Council.
They argued that, where local evidence showed that the need was for social rents, or rents lower than the 65%-80% of local market levels, they should be free to set these levels in their Borough plans. They demonstrated that they could secure development at these lower-rent levels through creative use of their own land and resources. The Inspector recommended that the prohibition of Borough rent caps should be deleted from the proposed alterations to the Plan.
The Inspectors’ report, though promised by him for January 2013, is actually dated 19th June and was published by the Mayor, along with his own response, only on 14th August in the middle of the summer holidays. The Mayor rejects the Inspector’s recommendation and insists that the ban on Borough autonomy in setting rent caps should be implemented.
At the time of writing it is not clear whether there will be any challenge to the Mayor’s proposals. The 9 Boroughs are considering whether to make a legal challenge and the London Assembly, which (for 21 days from 14 August) has a potential power of veto over the alterations, has called a special meeting for 3rd September at 1530h. We shall see. It would clearly help if we all lobby Assembly members before Tuesday.
The Inspector’s Report, the Mayor’s Response and the version of the London Plan which the Mayor now proposes to publish are all free downloads at: