Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

London borough ordered to reveal details behind Greenwich Peninsula affordable housing cut

Out-Law News | 09 Feb 2015 | 5:29 pm | 2 min. read

Greenwich Council has been ordered to disclose the full details of the viability assessment that led it to approve a cut in the affordable housing provision in four of the 11 plots covered by the 10,000-home Greenwich Peninsula masterplan.

The Council granted outline permission in 2004 for the comprehensive redevelopment of the Greenwich Peninsula site in south London into a business and residential district with up to 10,010 new homes and 325,000 square metres of commercial development. A planning obligation relating to the permission required 38% of the homes to be "affordable".

Hong Kong-based developer Knight Dragon acquired 60% of the company with rights to develop the site in 2012, and the remaining 40% in 2013. During 2012, it approached the Council, along with then joint-venture partner Quintain, with a revised proposal, seeking to reduce the affordable housing provision on four plots to the north of the masterplan site to nil, and to concentrate affordable housing on plots towards the south.

A viability assessment relating to the proposed changes was commissioned by the developers and provided to the Council in January 2013, with a request that it was not disclosed to any third parties. The Council commissioned its own report into the findings of the viability assessment, and decided in June 2013 to approve the changes.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request from a member of local campaign group the Greenwich Peninsula Residents Group, the Council disclosed copies of both the assessment and its own report, with certain information redacted. In a decision dated 30 January 2015, the General Regulatory Chamber of the First Tier Tribunal said the Council should disclose the full details of the reports, after deciding that the public interests in maintaining the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information did not outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information.

The decision notice said that "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". It noted that Knight Dragon, "a company robust enough to take on the development of a huge site over a period of 20 years", had asked to be relieved of the obligation "on the basis of a downturn in house prices it knew about at the time of purchase".

The Tribunal acknowledged that there was "a strong public interest in protecting commercially sensitive decisions about price" and "a specific public interest in preventing others obtaining a developer's expertise, or expertise which a developer paid for, for free". However, it dismissed fears that "developers would not engage at all with councils on major development opportunities" should information be disclosed and found it "particularly hard to accept that the pricing and other assumptions embedded in a viability appraisal are none of the public's business".

The decision notice dismissed the accusation that residents had adopted a "not in my back yard" view of increased provision of affordable housing in the south of the masterplan site. The Tribunal considered that the residents' concerns were "more about the reduction of the overall level of social housing and the polarising effect of there being no social housing on some sites and higher than expected proportions on others".

The Tribunal rejected the argument that residents were not disadvantaged because they had the same information as councillors at the relevant planning board meeting. The letter noted that the information provided to the councillors had also been lacking and that "at least one councillor would have preferred more detail about the appraisal".

"The objection of the Environmental Information Regulations is to allow the public and in this case the affected community to have relevant factual information in time for them to participate effectively in environmental decision making," concluded the notice. "That intention is served by exposure of sufficient information to allow fully informed interrogation of the recommendation."