Affordable housing on Station Plaza scrapped
An application for removal of the affordable housing obligation in the Station Plaza development was approved with reluctance by the planning committee last week. The decision raises fears for the future of such housing in Hastings. Nick Terdre reports.
The Station Plaza housing development was approved in 2007 as part of a wider plan encompassing the new college and an NHS health centre. Under a Section 106 agreement the planning permission included a 30% quota of affordable homes among the 103 housing units. While the college and NHS centre have been built, the housing development has so far been left on one side.
Last week the planning committee approved relief from the affordable housing obligation. In its application the developer John Laing’s agent argued that the project could only be made viable if this agreement were dropped. Details of how it reached this conclusion were included in a confidential report which was not disclosed to the committee, and which was endorsed by the District Valuer Service in another undisclosed report.
Committee members approved the application with reluctance, arguing that they had no choice. “I’m afraid the truth is that the ‘viability’ factor came into play here,” Cllr Phil Scott told HOT. “Developers did indeed play the ‘viability’ card and the District Valuer I’m afraid agreed with their case. For sure it does leave a bad taste in the mouth of members as our hands are very much tied, as much as we may protest.”
It was a change of rules by the government which brought the viability card into play, according to Cllr Michael Wincott. “This encouraged developers to seek to remove this obligation by showing the development to be unviable unless this was removed,” he said.
“The Council obtains an independent assessment of this from the District Valuer and, without conclusive evidence to the contrary, this has to be accepted. No planning inspector would refuse an appeal without this evidence.”
The trend towards applying to drop previously agreed affordable housing “…really is disgusting,” Cllr Wincott said.
HOT understands that members also criticised the practice of developers of sitting on land with planning permission until conditions became favourable for seeking relief.
Chris Lewcock, chairman of Hastings Urban Design Group, lamented the decision. “We’ll be losing in the order of 30 affordable flats,” he told HOT. He said he was also concerned about the loss of affordable housing on the basis of a confidential report when nobody had any way of assessing how valid the claims for relief might be.
“There may be particular reasons for confidentiality in this case, but nothing of that has been told to the members, and that’s very unsatisfactory,” he said. “Certainly there have been cases elsewhere where that information has been made publicly available.”
In an objection comment on the application Mr Lewcock cited a recent case in which a tribunal “…concluded that any harm in disclosing the information [concerning pricing and profit assumptions] was outweighed by the public interest in understanding the reasoning for particularly controversial decisions.” The Station Plaza decision was both a matter of public interest and controversial, he added.
The claim of unviability could also have been examined in the light of signs that the property market was picking up, he said. At a public meeting earlier this year on the proposed lido development in West St Leonards, a consultant engaged by the council said that the local property market was becoming more buoyant.
Mr Lewcock said he also feared the repercussions of the committee’s decision. “I think such applications will become increasingly common,” he said. “If one developer gets away with it, other developers will say, Why can’t we? Does that mean we will have no housing developments including affordable housing in the borough?”
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