The spotlight turns on “viability assessments”

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Did you catch our piece a few weeks back from Bob Colenutt, regarding the manner in which developers, particularly in London, have been exploiting a recently-added loophole in the planning system to wriggle out of their affordable housing commitments?

Well, there’s a lengthy piece at Teh Grauniad on the very same topic, featuring quotes from Bob Colenutt and others. Here’s a nice chewy snippet:

“Lend Lease is one of the most determined of the bunch. At the tribunal hearing in January last year, the company’s commercial director, James Walsh, said: “If we knew that disclosure of this type of information was in prospect … we would certainly seek to disclose much less-detailed information to public authorities.” He added that Lend Lease would even consider making the viability reports “available only for inspection at our premises, which would make it much more difficult for public authorities and their advisers to carry out robust interrogation of our information”.

Other developers have even insisted on councils using a remote log-in system, so they can monitor exactly which parts of their viability models are being tested. A statutory process has never been so loaded in the applicant’s favour.”

As ugly as it is, it’s good that this story’s getting some attention — sunlight may not be the best disinfectant, but at least we get a decent look at the wound before trying to treat it, if you’ll excuse the overstretched metaphor. But that’s not enough, as this further quote from Bob makes clear:

“They’re basically saying they are making the information public so people know why the borough is conceding on affordable housing levels – rather than challenging the fundamental basis of viability itself. If they think the issue is purely one of transparency, they’re wrong.”

Transparency is only valuable if people can act on what is thereby exposed — and that demands not just an engagement with the problem in a larger context, but what we might call a literacy; like the law, the planning system is bulky, convoluted and arcane, and has erected a powerful topology of professional and linguistic boundaries to keep meddlers out. To suggest the system needs reform must seem a tautology to most readers of FOReTHOUGHT… but reform takes time, and gets nowhere without popular support. Until the public can see and understand how the system is rigged and gamed to their detriment, they’ll continue believing whatever may be convenient for Westminster to promulgate — so perhaps the role of the planning academy in the 21st Century is less to change the planning system than to make it legible to the electorate? The former would be easier once the latter was accomplished, after all… and it’s unclear how much mileage there is in presenting evidence for reform to an administration who have no shame about admitting their ideological opposition to such.

The news is full of handwringing about how politics seems irrelevant to a growing slice of the electorate; would explaining and exposing the mechanics of development and local economics perhaps bring democracy back into focus? Maybe it’s time for planners to turn away from the policymakers, and toward the public? After all, the public show every sign of actively wanting to hear a new story, while the policymakers and their developer chums are clearly quite content with the one they’ve got.

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