Camden and Westminster want to relax requirements for affordable housing in Fitzrovia

The prospects for securing any further affordable housing in Fitzrovia appear to be narrowing as both Camden and Westminster want to change their statutory planning guidance in favour of major developers.

Scaffolding worker on site.

Plenty of demolition and redevelopment is going on in Fitzrovia but little prospect of new affordable housing.

It is in the interests of developers to reduce the amount spent on affordable housing to an absolute minimum and many commission confidential ‘viability statements’ to justify the limited amount they are willing to provide as a condition of getting planning permission.

In a number of cases in Westminster developers have argued that redevelopment schemes would not be viable if they were required to provide any affordable housing as part of a mixed development and offer ‘payment in lieu’ instead. This has been accepted in several cases and they then pay an agreed sum into the council’s affordable housing fund which may go towards affordable housing in the north of the borough or even outside London altogether.

Both councils have substantial reserves in their affordable housing funds but are reluctant to acquire land or buildings in Fitzrovia to provide additional affordable housing.

A change in wording in Camden’s Supplementary Planning Guidance was agreed in February, subject to further consultation. The new policy applies particularly to developments south of the Euston Road. It retains the principle of spending any payments from developers in that area if possible, but adds…’where no opportunities arise south of the Euston Road, the Council may spend these funds in parts of the borough to the north of Euston Road, having regard to the accessibility of the funded scheme to Central London….’ The new wording continues ‘The Council will seek to ensure that planning obligations provide for delivery options close to the application site to be fully explored, but do not constrain payments from the affordable housing fund to a narrowly defined area.’ While not suggesting a complete relaxation, it does offer developers an increased opportunity to make a payment rather than actually building affordable housing and gives Camden Council much more flexibility as to where they spending the money.

However, the response from 19 residents’ groups was overwhelmingly against this change. A further report in May recommended that the new statement be withdrawn because ‘It is apparent that the wording created misunderstanding of the Council’s intentions, and that the amendment could be misinterpreted in the future if adopted’.

In Westminster, modifications to the City Plan on mixed use development are also being proposed and are currently out for consultation until the 5 June. Here the policy requiring additional housing floorspace to match an increase in office use where the increase is more than 30% is being retained in the core Central Activities Zone that includes a large section of Fitzrovia. But developers are being given the choice whether the new affordable housing is provided on-site, off-site or as a payment in lieu. It’s pretty clear which will be the most popular option.

Payment in lieu has already become common practice in several recent cases with few objections from planning officers. Now the intention is to formalize the status quo in the revised policy. While developments such as Fitzroy Place and Rathbone Square required affordable housing of up to 20% of the total on-site, major redevelopments in the future may be almost entirely devoted to luxury housing when the changes come into effect.

All this suggests that the principle that new development in Fitzrovia will provide a mixture of types and tenures of housing on site has been superseded by a free-for-all where developers will create major commercial and housing developments catering for the £2m+ international market of ‘super-prime’ investment market. Both Councils will be increasingly tempted to dip into their affordable housing funds to subsidise developments in distant parts of the borough and it has been suggested Westminster may build new housing outside London.

A characteristic of Fitzrovia which local groups have fought to retain is the mix of housing to meet the needs of all income groups.

One of the few large undeveloped sites is the former Strand Workhouse and Middlesex outpatients’ building in Cleveland Street. Here the UCLH NHS Trust promised to provide at least an additional 44 affordable units in a legal agreement way back in 2004. So far nothing has happened and we are still waiting for the third set of proposals to be made public. It appears that the Trust is unwilling just to build the housing for the benefit of local people and possibly their own staff but is trying to square the circle of making a profit and meeting their obligations in relation to affordable housing.

A further threat to Fitzrovia’s traditional mixed community is that Camden Council is predicting that, under the new Planning and Housing Act, it may have to sell at least half its council housing when it becomes vacant in order to fund the right to buy for tenants of housing association properties. Much of this more valuable council property is in the area south of the Euston Road so a large proportion of the Council’s stock may soon be up for sale.

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