Leader accused of surrender to developers

Affordable housing quotas halved to incentivise development

building17:19 Thursday 7th January 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: In East Cambridgshire some councillors are angry they weren’t consulted about changes to rules on affordable housing. An announcement was put on the Council’s website that the amount developers have to build on site has been reduced by 50%. It’s being discussed at a Council meeting which starts in the next hour. In a moment of two we’ll hear from the Leader of the Council, but first of all to the person making the complaint, who is the LibDem councillor for Sutton, Lorna Dupre, who has proposed a motion. Lorna hello to you.
LORNA DUPRE: Good evening.
CHRIS MANN: So what’s the problem?
LORNA DUPRE: Well I was somewhat surprised to receive on November 5th an email telling me that the Council had decided to tear up its expectations for affordable housing development in East Cambridgeshire, and to halve the amount of affordable housing it was expecting developers to provide across the district, and that instead it would be asking developers to make a financial contribution to the Council, which could then be used for its community land trust, and to oil the financial wheels of its new local authority trading company. It seems to me that given the amount of consultation that Local Plans go through when they’re being drawn up, and given the urgency of the need for housing of all types, but particularly affordable housing in East Cambridgeshire, that to tear up our expectations like this, without a public discussion, is quite bizarre and quite inappropriate.

In poker terms James you blinked in this stand-off with the developers.

CHRIS MANN: So it’s a watering down of the amount of affordable housing. And I guess, at the start of the process, it’s one of the things that gets you hooked, isn’t it? Ah, there’ll be good houses here for people who need to get on the housing ladder. But by the time it gets to the end of the process, that number has changed significantly.
LORNA DUPRE: Well that’s right. The Council has itself admitted that it’s only overseeing in total the building of something like a quarter of the extra homes we need each year. We need huge numbers of increased housing across East Cambridgeshire, and not only now but we’ve also just embarked on the process of developing a new Local Plan that will see us through for the next twenty years. And if we wave a great big white flag at developers now and say oh look, we’re halving our expectation of the affordable housing you’re supposed to build, just give us some money instead, that seems to me a big white flag that is going to mean it’s very difficult to insist on more affordable housing for the foreseeable future.
CHRIS MANN: By a big white flag, are you saying in effect that the Council has surrendered in its negotiations with the developers?
LORNA DUPRE: That appears to be the implication of what’s being said, if you’re only expecting them to build half of what we originally said we wanted. And there’s all sorts of implications for this, but we really need a public debate about it.
CHRIS MANN: I’ve seen the minutes of the meeting that you’re holding later on.
motion_1I know this is the first item up on business, which will be announced by the Leader of the Council I imagine in just over an hour’s time, and he is James Palmer, councillor James Palmer from Soham, and he joins us now. James, evening to you. Thank you for joining us.
JAMES PALMER: Good evening.
CHRIS MANN: I know you’ll be debating this in the hallowed halls of East Cambs later but for public consumption first. Now, you’ve heard the complaint. What do you say?
JAMES PALMER: Well I think the first thing is that the Liberal Democrats campaigned very heavily that we were not providing enough affordable housing for East Cambridgeshire at the last election, and I think it’s a valid point. So what do you do? You either stick with a policy that’s failed over the past ten to fifteen years, or you look to ways of changing. Now we’ve got a very clear policy at East Cambridgeshire of community land trusts. We’ve got two in construction at the moment, and they bring in at least 30% if not more affordable housing for villages and towns that go down the community land trust route. But we’re also under pressure to develop housing. Now it’s very obvious that the policy that we had in place was stopping development. It was not affordable or viable for businesses to come in and develop houses at 40% affordable housing. So what do you do about that? You either sit back and say we’ll have 40% of nothing, or we will try and amend and change the policy, or not change the policy but amend the situation to try and make sure that we get more affordable housing built. because I’d rather have 20% of something (rather then) 40% of nothing. And of course what we’ve done is not change the policy but change the way it’s interpreted, so that if a developer comes in and wants to build houses in East Cambridgeshire, they can build half the amount, either 20% or 15% of affordable housing on site, but they have to pay the Council an amount of money which will provide housing off-site. And we will be able to provide that housing through a community land trust.
CHRIS MANN: OK. She is saying that you are waving a white flag. You’ve surrendered to these ..
JAMES PALMER: Well that is an absolute load of rubbish. Quite frankly you just have to look at the figures in front of you and say OK, if the market can’t afford to do it they won’t do it. So you either say and you sit stoically and you stand there and you say I will not change, I will stay the same. Or you make decisions to encourage development. Now it’s not just affordable housing we want in East Cambridgshire. We want housing for everybody who lives here, and we know that people want to live here. It’s a fantastic place to be, and how arrogant would it be for us to stand there and say no no no no no, you can only develop here if you provide 40% of affordable housing. Or would it be more sensible to look at the situation, give a composite, a sensible option, community land trusts, provide an option to developers of paying for low-cost housing off-site, so that it can be provided. And therefore that would also encourage development for those that can afford to pay.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Let’s put this back to Lorna. Lorna, I think James is saying we live in a real world and you have to get business done. Are you satisfied with his explanation?
LORNA DUPRE: Well we do live in a real world, but we live in a real world in which there is an acute pressure for affordable housing in East Cambridgeshire. And even the definition of affordable is far higher than what many people are able to pay. It’s not a cheap part of the country to live in, but people have family and family connections. I think we need an expectation that there’s going to be a reasonable supply of affordable homes. James is admitting that we are going to see fewer affordable homes demanded by the Council, significantly fewer than there have been recently, and if that suggests to developers that they can press us for fewer and fewer affordable homes in future the situation is going to get even worse.
CHRIS MANN: OK. In poker terms James you blinked in this stand-off with the developers.
JAMES PALMER: (LAUGHS) What an absolute load of rubbish. I want to see houses built in East Cambs. I want to see low-cost housing. I want to see affordable housing. Let’s be absolutely brutally honest here. Lorna does make one very good point. The current policy of low-cost housing across the country does not provide low-cost, actually low-cost or affordable housing. Our community land trust policy, if you look at our community land trust in Stretham they will be providing houses at 60% or 50% of rentable value across the district. So it’s OK for Lorna, because, you know, the Liberal Democrats are very good at telling us what we haven’t done. But they never come forward with absolute composite policies. We’ve not only got a policy there to change things, community land trusts, but we’re also trying to inject positivity in the market.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Let me put that to Lorna. Lorna, it’s easy to be in opposition and complain, but James has actually got to deal with the reality of the situation. He says he’s adapted for the benefits of all.
LORNA DUPRE: But James is very proud and he makes the point that he’s very proud to lead one of the few committee-led councils left in the country, and you would have thought that a decision, a change of this magnitude to such a significant document as the Local Plan would be something that he would want to come and have a public debate about.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Well that’s a fair point. James, why didn’t you consult?
JAMES PALMER: No. Look as I said before, this isn’t a change in policy it’s a change in application. We can’t change the policy and obviously Lorna has already mentioned that. The Local Plan is under review next year, or this year actually, under review very shortly. Then we can look at changing the policy. This isn’t a change in the amount of affordable housing that’s provided. It’s just a change in the way it’s done. So any developer that comes into our area has to provide affordable housing, or a cash amount to the Council who will provide it in their stead. It’s quite obvious that low-cost housing has not been provided, not only in East Cambridgeshire but across the country. You either stick with the status quo or you make changes to make it work.
CHRIS MANN: James you’ve run out of time but thank you, you’ve made that point a couple of times. Thank you so much for joining us,. That’s councillor James Palmer, Leader of East Cambs District Council. You also heard from LibDem councillor Lorna Dupre, And I guess if you want to hear that argument, it’s warmed up there, go along to the Council meeting in the next hour or so and hear them bat live at East Cambs offices in Ely.