Is there a General Election in the air? Salford Star has been pointing out for ages how developers that are currently scarring the city with huge, ugly blocks of unaffordable, small apartments near Manchester City Centre and on Salford Quays have been getting out of paying £millions to Salford City Council, thanks to `viability' loopholes...
"While housing support services for the city's poorest people are about to get battered in the cuts budget, property speculators are cashing in on scandalous ConDem Government planning policy and a pathetically weak response from Salford councillors, rolling over every time a hand wringing developer cries poverty because their profit levels aren't high enough..." wrote the Star (see full article – click here).
At the following planning meeting, councillors of both the Labour and Conservative parties did respond, slagging off the loss of £4.4million of payments in applications for over 1,500 flats at Chapel Wharf and Clippers Quay.
"Now the challenge is for Salford councillors to take their grievances about the pathetic levels of Section 106 contributions and affordable housing out of the planning panel meetings and explain to their residents why the Council is losing £millions every month to back slapping developers – and more importantly to take a stand on it and campaign for change..." wrote the Star (see full article – click here).
Yesterday the scandal was finally brought out in public at the full meeting of Salford City Council – and Councillor Derek Antrobus, Assistant Mayor for Strategic Planning, didn't hold back.
"I think it is a public scandal of immense proportions that has seen Eric Pickles rig the planning regulations in order to deprive, to rob, local communities of its essential investment in order to line the pockets of landowners and developers" he spat "That is the reality of the position that we are in."
The `scandal' revolves around `Section 106' agreements, which are payments developers agree to make to Salford Council for things like `public realm, infrastructure and heritage', `construction training' and `open space', on a set scale. On large developments, they also have to provide affordable housing or make payments for `off site' affordable housing**.
Developers have always sought ways to get around these obligations - and usually do in Salford. Last time the Salford Star put in a Freedom of Information request (2013) there had been only one `off-site' sum paid for affordable housing in the previous five years! And that was for Ladywell Point on Eccles New Road – nowhere near Manchester centre or Salford Quays.
During this time there had been a change of Government, where Eric Pickles, Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, had made it even easier for developers to jump through loopholes, by changing the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in respect of `viability' - creating an even bigger scandal than what was present before...
"Where it is considered that a development is not viable if a section 106 agreement is imposed then we've got to ignore the section 106 issues" explained Antrobus "The Government has determined that `viability' is where a developer is no longer able to make a 10% profit on it - I don't know of any other industry where that profit margin is guaranteed by the public sector."
Antrobus tempered his arguments by adding that the Council gets "some benefits through development agreements rather than section 106" and that developers that had secured land at too high a price from land owners "in some cases can't develop at prices that we need". He added that the Salford Star's estimate of £20million lost to the city through developer loopholes was a "fantasy figure" – really? (see below*).
Conservative Leader Councillor Karen Garrido slated the amount of rented, as opposed to sold, flats being given planning permission and added that "We should be looking at the District Valuer" who appears to be regularly okaying the developers `viability' figures... "If this is a serious problem we should be doing something about it" she said, offering to pay her own train fare to go and see Eric Pickles with Councillor Antrobus to sort it out.
In the meantime, there are more huge planning applications in the pipeline, no doubt with `viability' issues which will let more developers off with more £millions.
Earlier in the Council meeting there was another scandal brewing, with the directly elected Mayor for Greater Manchester to be given powers over the Salford planning process.
This revolves around a thing called the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, a document that sets out the region's needs for housing and commercial space. Councillor Karen Garrido, who had seen a copy of the consultation on the Framework, said that it "stated we needed more houses and land, and could be looking at green belt land too".
Normally the Framework would be ratified by the ten local authorities, including Salford Council, but the Greater Manchester Mayor will now be making the final decision, with the consent of his Cabinet, removing formal powers of ordinary councillors to challenge it.
"There may be legislative change which means that we would not have the power to approve it" Councillor Antrobus responded "That power will be somewhere else, and I can't give you any guarantees about that because we do not know what is in the minds of Members of Parliament".
The Council agreed the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework report which included the wording "The GM Agreement provides for a directly elected mayor with powers over strategic planning, including the power to create a statutory spatial framework for GM [Greater Manchester]."
• £20MILLION IN LOST PLANNING FEES A `FANTASY FIGURE'?
Scarborough Development Group - Middlewood Locks £6.412m
X1 Media City (if planning obligations not changed) £2.437m
Pinnacle Greengate £1.908m
Peel Holdings – MediaCityUK - £5.59m
Peel Holdings – Media City hotel etc £184,263
City Suites Greengate £476,781
Dock Office Salford Quays £251,098
Salford Town Hall X1 £250,000
Elan Homes – Ordsall £300,000
Amstone Ventures – Clippers Quay £1.677m
• Figures are only the ones documented by Salford Star
• Figures exclude any affordable housing
• Figures exclude Acroy/Dandara application which was deferred but would have been a loss of another £2.76m
** These `viability' issues haven't just been present under the ConDem Government. Back in 2007, under the Labour Government, the Salford Star documented every single planning application submitted to Salford City Council during a six month period at the height of the housing boom - only four schemes out of 19 submitted offered any affordable housing. From applications submitted for nearly 9,000 homes, only 175, or less than 2%, were officially classed as affordable - despite the Council having a policy in place that all new developments over 25 houses had to provide between 20% and 25% affordable homes. The loophole? The schemes would not be `commercially viable'?
For full report see Salford Star printed issue 4 Spring 2007 - click here for PDF
Update: 30th January 2015 -
Salford Council refuses to disclose secret viability figures under Freedom of Information Act - see here