East Devon developers do not disclose their viability agreements – EDDC thinks they should remain confidential because they contain “commercially sensitive information” yet Bristol disagrees and publishes theirs.
Baker Estates in Honiton have been allowed to reduce the number of affordable properties, using such a confidential document.
“Last autumn, campaigners scored an unprecedented victory. The target was “viability assessments”: dossiers produced by housing developers to justify the amount of affordable housing – or lack thereof – in their developments, and which are frequently used during the construction process to shrug off previous commitments.
“Developers were saying, ‘We can’t afford to put 30-40% affordable housing in here,’ to make the profits they are legally entitled to,” says Louise Herbert, spokesperson for Bristol-born tenants union Acorn. “But all of their numbers – how much they projected to sell the houses for, how much they bought the land for – were redacted.”
Acorn, along with the Bristol Cable media co-operative, campaigned for the full release of these files. Following a public outcry, the council voted to make the viability assessments public.
Now, Herbert says, the public can examine these assessments themselves, and make sure that more affordable housing is built in their areas.
In response, Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation (HBF), argues that those without formal training “may feel that the figures set out in such assessments are ‘too high’ or ‘too low’ and make representations and decisions accordingly, rather than based on the evidence.”
For now, it’s too soon to tell if publishing the viability assessments has achieved change in Bristol. But it’s a small step that could point the way for cities such as London, where viability assessments remain pervasive, or Manchester, where in contravention of the city’s own guidelines, none of the nearly 15,000 planned new developments have any provision for affordable housing.
Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, believes that it sends a signal to developers: “We’re a great city to do business in – but we want the right kind of money.”
Councillor Paul Smith agrees. “Housing can’t be left to the market if you want to meet the housing needs of the whole city,” he says. “There are 500 families in temporary accommodation, 100 people sleeping rough on the streets, huge numbers who are inadequately housed, and people living in poor-quality, high-rent accommodation.”…