Three and a half years ago, Salford City Council adopted a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) that gave developers get-outs from paying planning obligations and providing affordable housing in huge swathes of the city.
This, together with the Tory Government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), saw the Salford Star estimate a loss of around £40million in planning fees and well over a thousand affordable homes.*
Now, Salford Council has acknowledged the mess and the total lack of transparency in the planning process with proposals for a 'revised' SPD that goes some way to solving the scandal, although there are still loads of loopholes for developers.
One of the main ways that developers avoid planning obligations is through 'viability assessments' which have been secret documents justifying that profit levels (typically set at 18%) won't be high enough if they have to cough up the funds. There's a whole industry of companies, including Gary Neville's Zerum, which help developers draw up these assessments.
Now, the Council is proposing a tightening of how the assessments are drawn up and the companies creating them..."All viability appraisals should be produced by a relevant qualified professional, who should be instructed on the basis of conducting an independent assessment with no incentive for reducing the scale of planning obligation..." It will be interesting to see how this will work in practice.
However, after blocking frequent Salford Star requests to see viability assessments, the Council is now proposing to make them public...
"Good information on how planning obligations have been agreed and used is essential to maintaining public confidence in the planning system" the proposal report states "Where planning obligations do not accord with all of the policy requirements in this SPD, it is important that local communities can understand fully why a reduced contribution is considered necessary and appropriate. The publication of viability appraisals is a key aspect of this...
"The city council will apply a presumption that all viability assessments submitted as part of the planning application process, or in relation to clawback, will be published" it adds, although there is a loophole..."...the city council will only depart from this presumption where this would create a genuinely exceptional problem for the applicant that is highly unlikely to apply to other developments and clearly outweighs the benefits of publishing the full viability assessment..."
The Council is still going to use 'clawbacks' where contributions are reduced but things like developers 'clearly overpaying' for a site or using Greater Manchester averages for development costs will now not be used as "a justification for negotiating a reduced contribution".
Another trick used by developers to avoid planning obligations is to split a site so that the scheme is below the size where fees would be due, and the SPD states that there will be a clampdown.
However, the main complaint about Salford's planning process is the lack of affordable housing in developments, with even planning councillors trying to bring up the issue at meetings (although usually being told to shut up).
Again, the Council has acknowledged the scandal...
"In recent years, Salford has been very successful at attracting large levels of new residential development, but there has been widespread public concern about the low proportion of affordable homes that have been delivered in private sector developments and, in particular, the large number of schemes that have provided no affordable housing at all" the report states.
The revised SPD is proposing a minimum of 20% affordable housing in all developments across the city, with some sites requiring up to 50% affordable housing...
In what is called 'Premium' areas of the city (see map), developments of houses and mid-density apartments (less than six storeys) will require 50% affordable housing; in High value areas, it's 50% for houses and 35% for mid-density apartments; and in Mid/High value areas it's 35% for houses and 25% for mid-density apartments. Green Belt areas will have their own specification (between 25% and 50% according to the GM Spatial Framework – see here).
Everyone now knows that 'affordable' isn't really affordable, and within the 'affordable housing' requirements, 37.5% will be social rent, with 'affordable' housing (20% less than market rent) set also at 37.5% and shared ownership at 25%.
Again, there's loopholes...
Where providing 20% affordable housing is 'challenging', "there will be situations where it is appropriate to reduce or even waive the affordable housing requirement", the report sighs "This variability in viability, both between sites and over time, means that it is appropriate that the assessment is the starting point rather than the only determinant of the affordable housing policy..."
Indeed, it explains that "the strategic viability assessment indicates that viability is sufficiently strong in some parts of Salford to support more than 20% affordable housing in new residential developments. These are the areas with the highest house prices in the city, and hence where affordable housing is especially important if a diverse range of people are to be able to access a suitable home within them..."
Meanwhile, Build To Rent schemes, which are increasing popular in the city, will have to provide 20% affordable private rent apartments, with a 20% discount on market rent. However, if the developer is charging, say, £1,000 a month for a private rent, this still makes them unaffordable.
Other factors within the revised SPD include Open Space payments, Education, Transport, Pubic Realm contributions and land for new schools.
The revised SPD is a response, at last, by Salford City Council to a planning scandal that has plagued the city, with leading councillors blaming the Government and refusing to acknowledge their own role – if it was all the Government's fault, why can they now change it?
This new policy goes some way to rectifying the mess – many would say after the horse has bolted – but the proof will come, after the consultation and implementation in the summer...
The Revised Salford SPD is currently a draft and residents can comment on it between 22nd January and 22nd March...
By email to firstname.lastname@example.org
By post to: Planning Obligations SPD consultation, Spatial Planning, Salford City Council, Civic Centre, Chorley Road, Swinton, M27 5BY
By hand to: Salford Civic Centre main reception, Chorley Road, Swinton
Any questions can be phoned through to the Council on 0161 793 3782, or by email at email@example.com
To read the full reports – click here (see Salford Revised Planning Obligations SPD
For a full background see previous Salford Star articles...
* Government Admits Abuse of Planning Policies that Have Blighted Salford - click here
Developers Avoid £5million Payments in 2017-18 – click here
Section 106 Delivers Only 16 Affordable Homes in Salford in 2017-18 – click here
Salford Housing Crisis – The Causes – click here
£42million Planning Scandal as Salford Mayor Asks What's Going On – click here
See also the electronic version of Salford Star print issue 10 – the £19million (as it was then) Planning Scandal – click here
Under Freedom of Information, Salford Council Releases Viability Assessment - With Everything Redacted! - click here
Main image from the Salford Star print magazine in 2015