WINCHESTER policymakers will again discuss the £150 million Silver Hill scheme next week.
The city council cabinet meets on Wednesday August 6 to look again at the issue of affordable housing in the redevelopment of part of the city centre.
The developer Henderson says providing the previously agreed 100 affordable homes would make the scheme unviable.
A mechanism whereby Henderson makes payments towards such housing depending on the future profitability of the development has been discussed with the city council.
But there is strong public support for including social housing.
The leading campaigner against the scheme is Cllr Kim Gottlieb who has twice this week written to council leader Rob Humby.
Cllr Gottlieb has asked how affordable housing could have been viable in evidence given to the 2012 public inquiry on the compulsory purchase order but non-viable today.
Cllr Gottlieb has written a second letter calling for the August 6 meeting to be postponed, arguing it could be ultra vires or beyond the council's authority to proceed.
His first letter states: "The issue of affordable housing that Cabinet is due to review on August 6 involves a number of questions, including; * How come it is being accepted that no affordable housing is financially viable today?
* How come that only two years ago (at the CPO inquiry) it was considered that a 35% contribution (equating to 100 homes) was financially viable?
* Which of these two positions was correct at the time - they can't both be - and if one of them was wrong, how can we be certain that today's advice is unassailable?
The Cabinet has accepted two reasons for this loss in viability, which has apparently occurred despite the fact that the market has improved, and the fact that the value of the scheme has been enhanced by the addition of 50,000 square feet of retail space and the loss of the cost of the bus garage, amongst other alterations.
The first reason given is that the system of grants for affordable housing has changed, and the second reason is that the developer is going to spend more on the construction of the scheme.
These reasons beg more questions.
* Given that the changes to the grant system predate the Council's 2012 position, how can this first reason be valid? * Given that the changes to the grant system can effectively allow Housing Associations to pay close to full market value for new sites, again, how can this reason be valid?
* What has the developer done to the scheme to raise the construction cost so dramatically (without improving value), and were all their cost assumptions in 2012 incorrect?
* Why hasn’t the Council (as landowner) told the developer to make further scheme alterations before it submits a planning application, so that a substantial amount of affordable housing is made financially viable and the Council’s policy objectives are achieved?
* Given that the Council still has a 40% contribution policy (despite the claimed effects of the changes in the grant system) and demands builders on even the smallest sites to pay a £50,000 per unit contribution, how fair and even-handed is it for the Council to take such a relaxed position on a site it owns itself?
* The one completed previous occasion when the Council agreed to a 'viability mechanism', failed to secure any additional affordable housing, so how can the Council have any confidence that this type of mechanism will secure any more now?
On August 6, the Cabinet is due to review a decision it had already made itself, based on advice on financial viability it has previously received from officers and from external advisors, none of which has been made publicly available for scrutiny.
As regards the 'mechanism', not even the Cabinet has yet seen the document because, as I understand it, there is not yet an agreed draft. Cabinet has simply been told that it will work.
Alongside the issue of architecture and the impacts on heritage and the High Street (and other matters), the issue of affordable housing is of great public concern, and the position of Cabinet appears to be in conflict with both local and central government policy. If there to be any kind of robust and honest examination of the issue, as Full Council has asked of Cabinet, all details and advice on financial viability both today and in 2012 and a draft of the mechanism need to be made publicly available, so that all Councillors can consult and members of the public can properly consider the above and many more relevant questions.
There is no legitimate commercial reason not to disclose all this information and to allow new light to be shone on the matter, as the developer's position (and the Council’s) is secured by contract and by the assessment that their offer represents 'best consideration' - in other words, if their offer is the best offer it can't be bettered.
To ensure the public’s confidence in the process, and in the interest of good and transparent governance, I would ask that you make all this information immediately available, and to allow sufficient time for it to be considered before Cabinet meets to review its previous position.
I look forward to hearing from you."
In a second letter written yesterday (July 29), Cllr Gottlieb said: "I note from the report to committee (CAB 2607) issued earlier today, that the idea of using a ‘mechanism’ to secure affordable housing from the developer has been dropped altogether. In its place is a proposal whereby the only contribution to affordable housing will be made by the Council. None will be made by the developer.
This is a very significant departure from the recommendations considered by Overview & Scrutiny on July 7 and by Full Council on July 16.
It is also at odds with how the public is presently being informed courtesy of the Council’s website, not that the information there was ever particularly clear or detailed.
There will now be a large number of Members away on holiday, who will be unaware of the critical changes made to an important aspect of the matter. The fact that Cabinet is having a special meeting to discuss this one matter obviously confirms its importance.
In the circumstances, the only viable way forward is for the meeting on August 6 to be cancelled, and for the matter to be referred back to Full Council. If Cabinet proceeds without such reference, it is very likely that its decision would be ultra vires.
I look forward to your confirmation that this will occur, by return."