Planning committee is ducking scrutiny say Labour councillors

Hammersmith and Fulham have appeared in Private Eye's "Rotten Boroughs" section a record 13 times in the past year

Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative administration has been accused of denying elected councillors access to important planning information to cover up its reluctance to build affordable homes.

The council’s housing policy has attracted caustic censure. In October Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate for London Mayor, accused the Tories of “cleansing working class people out of the borough” to improve their fortunes at the ballot box.

The latest controversy concerns a “Disclosure of Confidential Information Protocol” which restricts access to “commercially confidential information” which include justifications for not including affordable housing in planning proposals.

Urgent Planning Committee Protocol on Confidential Information (1)

Under it, members of the Planning Application Committee (PAC) have to show a “need to know” to obtain such information and, even if it is disclosed they cannot discuss it in public.

Cllr Stephen Cowan - Leader of the Opposition

“This is happening to disguise why Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservatives don’t grant permission for any genuinely affordable social housing. It is a disgraceful undermining of the role of the committee,” according to the council’s Labour opposition Cllr Stephen Cowan.

Roy Darke, a former lecturer in town planning and urban management at Oxford Brookes University, described the protocol as “provocative” and “heavy handed”.

“To say ‘this information is off limits’ and ‘we don’t trust [opposition members]’ is a very bad way to be putting a protocol in place,” he said. “If there is commercial sensitivity around an issue typically what will happen is it won’t be taken in the public part of the committee and the meeting will go into private session … One way around the ‘need to know’ approach would be simply to give councillors information if they wish it, but to do so under the confidentiality rule until it is no longer commercially sensitive.

Roy Darke - Former Lecturer in Town and Country Planning at Oxford Brookes University

“This all revolves around trust, and I suppose Hammersmith and Fulham is saying it doesn’t trust some of its opposition councillors.”

But Rob Mansfield, a council spokesman claimed that the protocol simply clarifies existing law. “It’s an absolute bog-standard reminder to councillors of what their duties are,” he said. “Our council operates in exactly the same way as the vast majority of councils across the UK.”

At the heart of this controversy is the so-called Three Dragons financial model, which calculates how much a company can expect to make from a development. Estimated costs are subtracted from the estimated sale price to project a profit. If affordable housing is included in a scheme, it reduces the profit margin. But the figures are deemed commercially confidential, in effect allowing the council to push through developments with negligible affordable housing in them without explaining why.

Based on Three Dragons calculations, the developer of the recently approved luxury development at Fulham Reach, St George, could claim that it was viable to provide only 25 per cent affordable housing – lower than the 40 per cent stipulated in the council’s  local development framework (LDF). No affordable rented housing was included in the proposal, again in breach of the LDF and London Mayor Boris Johnson’s London Plan.

The affordable housing at Fulham Reach is mainly studio apartments priced from £175,000 to £224,000, which have been advertised in Hong Kong. One local resident dubbed them “rabbit hutches for the rich”.

“The Conservative administration keeps using Three Dragons financial modelling to explain why it is able to ignore the Mayor’s London Plan and avoid forcing developers to include affordable social housing,” said Cllr Cowan. “The Conservatives haven’t granted permission for a single affordable social home to rent since coming to power five and a half years ago.”

Planning officers refused to disclose details of the Three Dragons appraisal to opposition members. Eventually the council ceded that they had a right to see the figures, but opposition members say this has been delayed and with the new protocol in place, planning officers argue that they no longer have to release the information.

The council says that St George only supplied the information on condition that it was kept confidential but opposition councillor Mike Cartwright, who is a chartered surveyor, claims that this is not standard practice: “There’s nothing in the Three Dragons [remit] that says it has to be confidential,” he said. “You can find recent examples of Three Dragons calculations on Croydon [council’s] website and on Tower Hamlets’ website … it is public information.”

Cllr Michael Cartwright - Chartered Surveyor

“The one Three Dragons test in Hammersmith and Fulham that’s been publicly scrutinised was the Goldhawk Industrial Estate, which was subject to a public inquiry. At the inquiry the inspector asked to see the Three Dragons figures and they were proven to be incorrect. Now that makes me suspicious,” he added. “Three Dragons is very easy to manipulate. If for instance you were ‘pessimistic’ about how much your houses are going to sell for, that depresses the projected profit. If you say ‘I think we’re going to hit all sorts of problems when we start building this – we’d better put the building costs up’, then that again depresses it. So it’s a question of judgment. There’s a very large room for interpretation.”

Mr Mansfield rejected suggestions that financial appraisals might be manipulated and denied  that the Goldhawk Industrial Estate figures had been incorrect.

Asked why members of the planning committee could not be trusted with commercially sensitive information, he said: “you should go back to some of your councillors and ask whether or not they have ever released confidential information.”

Cllr Cartwright’s responded by saying: “I’ve never leaked anything. And it’s a complete irrelevance. If we leak confidential information they can report us to the standards board. The only people to get into to trouble would be us.”
“The [council] director [Nigel Pallace] said in one of his letters is that they are protecting us. He says if we accidentally release the information to the public St George could sue. I have never heard such a load of baloney. You can’t help but think that they’re not going to let us have [the figures] because they fear what we may do with [them].”