Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Housing Minister’s Sutton criticism unfounded and contradictory

The Conservative Housing Minister Kris Hopkins made a visit to Sutton with Paul Scully, the ousted local Conservative council group leader, now with ambitions to be MP in Sutton; and spent his time criticising Lib Dem-run Sutton Council, as reported in the Sutton Guardian. However the minister proved to be ill-informed, and his criticisms unjustified. I have therefore written to him directly to advise him of Sutton’s excellent track record on delivering affordable housing, and pointing out how his colleague in Planning, Nick Boles, is making policy that undermines councils’ efforts to deliver affordable housing and jeopardises town centre viability. The content of my letter is reproduced below.

To add to my indignation is the fact that it was local Tory Cllr Shields who publicly called for the council to allow the Sutherland House development without asking for any affordable housing, and opposed the council’s stance at appeal.  So the only people not pushing hard for affordable housing in Sutton are Mr Scully’s own party colleagues. However nor do our local Tories appear to have a joined up approach as their much more rational colleagues, Cllr Malcolm Brown, and Cllr David Hicks, who sit on the Housing, Economy & Business Committee, were supportive of the council’s implementation of an Article 4 Direction.

Kris Hopkins MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State
Department for Communities and Local Government, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London, SW1E 5DU
Re: Public criticism of Sutton Council’s approach to affordable housing

I was very disappointed to read the report in the Sutton Guardian 16th January edition about your recent visit to Sutton where you express criticism of Sutton Council, and in an overtly political way.

Not only is the criticism unfounded, it is also contradictory.

Sutton Council has been actively encouraging inward investment into the borough through its Opportunity Sutton Economic development programme which has attracted £322million of new investment just in the last 18 months. Much of this investment will result in new housing for the borough. Our track record on securing affordable housing exceeds the London mayors’ 50% target with 53% of all dwelling completions in the last four years being affordable.

During this recession all local planning authorities have had to consider claims of financial unviability from developers seeking to provide less than the required amount of affordable housing in new residential developments. In Sutton we consider each case on its merits and seek strong evidence to support financial viability claims. We recently challenged the developers of Sutherland House, a major scheme proposing to change derelict offices into residential units without offering any affordable housing units on the site. Our challenge was upheld by the Planning Inspectorate on appeal. A new application for this site which did include an element of affordable housing was recommended for approval by our planning officers, however the application was withdrawn by the developers at the very last minute. It is assumed that the developer now wants to make use of the Permitted Development changes allowing the change of use to go ahead without the requirement for planning permission, or affordable housing.

Which brings me to the contradictory element of your comments. You criticise the Council for challenging this Permitted Development ruling, however it is this ruling that enables developers to get out of any requirement to provide affordable housing in an office conversion to residential. It also prevents the council from negotiating any financial contribution from the developers to provide the local infrastructure necessary to support the increase in population or traffic resulting from the conversion.

The council’s challenge to this ruling through an Article 4 Direction does not presume refusal of office conversions to residential, it only requires that a full planning application be submitted so that consideration of the need to protect employment land in the town centre can be undertaken, and where permission is granted an element of affordable housing can be negotiated together with s106 contributions to mitigate the local impacts of the development.

As we are already seeing commercial tenants being evicted to enable viable offices to be converted to residential, and developers deliberately circumventing planning procedures to avoid providing affordable housing, I fail to see how you can publicly state that the council is not doing enough to encourage affordable housing and then criticise the very measure we are introducing to seek to protect it.

Instead I would call on you in your position as housing minister to challenge the Permitted Development changes insofar that they undermine the ability of local planning authorities to require a proportion of affordable housing in office to residential conversions, and to support our Article 4 Direction for the Sutton Town Centre area.

It would also be helpful if you would encourage those landowners and developers who complained to you to get in touch with me. We consulted widely on the introduction of the Article 4 Direction and received no objections. We pride ourselves on our enabling approach that has proved successful in bringing forward development in a way which meets the Council’s objectives, as well as acknowledging the commercial drivers of developers and landowners. If your contacts do wish to take advantage of our ‘open for business’ approach, please do encourage them to get in touch with me and I will arrange for senior officers to make contact.

We would also like to see a challenge from your department to the changes to the New Homes Bonus you also referred to, which means that London boroughs’ incentive has been reduced by the top slicing of the Bonus to be pooled into a London pot, overseen by the Mayor, and which means we no longer get the full benefit of schemes we have worked to bring on, but instead have to see it distributed elsewhere at the Mayor’s discretion.

Yours sincerely

Councillor Jayne McCoy
Chair of the Housing, Economy & Business Committee, LBS

February 7, 2014 - Posted by | Information, Opinion | , , , ,

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