After successful lobbying by Green councillors, Bristol City Council will soon make its planning process more transparent to improve scrutiny of levels of affordable housing. Yesterday (Wednesday 18th October) the first of Bristol Council’s two planning committees approved a change to make housing developers’ viability studies public. These viability studies are used to justify proportions of affordable housing (or the lack thereof) in developers’ planning applications. Previously the only people with access to these documents were the housing developers themselves and council officers, making it difficult for councillors to challenge planning proposals that included low proportions of affordable housing. From December developers will need to include their viability report at the start of their application process to develop in Bristol.
Green Development Control (planning) committee members welcomed the increased transparency but challenged the high returns for developers which remain built in to the process.
Green Councillor Steve Clarke, who proposed the successful Council motion that led to the change, said:
“There has always been a certain amount of mystery around these viability reports and that lack of transparency has bred mistrust; basically people don't believe them. The fact that they will now be routinely available on the planning website is a huge step forward in rebuilding that trust with the process. Concerned citizens will be able to examine them in detail and test the assumptions (and arithmetic) that has been used. This is exactly in line with the Green Party Group’s aspirations for greater openness and accountability in council processes and we will be looking for other areas where light can be shone on dark corners of decision making processes.”
Clifton Down Councillor Clive Stevens, a member of the committee that voted for the proposal said:
“This visibility is long overdue, in fact the latest planning calculations show a need for even more affordable housing over the coming 20 years. Before now, rogue developers could hide or delay providing this vital information until the last minute and then amazingly appeal to an inspector because the Council took more than the prescribed 13 weeks to decide. From 1st December we will be able to stop this behaviour which in my view is almost criminal and costs the residents of Bristol a great deal due to higher rents.”
Green Councillor Martin Fodor added:
“We still have to deal with the government imposed viability test, which builds in assumptions of 20% profits for developers. But at least this new policy allows some transparency of where developers' assumptions conflict with the council advisers' figures.
“In a recent committee session, council planners and the developer disagreed over build cost and specification assumptions – details that were not visible to the councillors sitting on the committee. As a result we never reached agreement and only a limited number of affordable homes were offered by the developer. Given the severe lack of affordable housing in the city at least committee members will now know what the developers’ assumptions are.”
The vote passed on 18 October in Development Control Committee A and is due to come before Development Control Committee B on the 8th November, where it is expected it will pass.
Guardian article covers how developers exploit the secrecy of viability assessments https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jun/25/london-developers-viability-planning-affordable-social-housing-regeneration-oliver-wainwright