A 50% affordable housing target is an unworkable, undemocratic and irrational policy

The long-awaited policy of London mayor Ken Livingstone – that at least 50% of all residential schemes in London be affordable housing – has finally become a reality. However, although the desire to tackle London’s burgeoning housing crisis is laudable, Westminster council has argued against this 50% target. We don’t feel that browbeating developers – with the backing of central government – into building schemes that are not commercially viable is the way to deal with the affordable housing shortage.

Affordable housing has featured as a policy in Westminster since late 1997. In the past 12 months, our policy has resulted in the approval of 146 affordable housing units out of 592 homes approved overall. In addition, developers have repaid more than £11m towards housing provision from schemes where affordable homes could not be built on site.

Since October 1997, Westminster’s emerging unitary development plan has been wending its way through the numerous stages of consultation and challenge, including a public inquiry, towards adoption. Westminster has taken the opportunity to bolster our policy to what we consider to be the “gold standard”, providing an appropriate balance between need and deliverability. The net result is an increase in affordable housing from 25% to 30% for developments including 15 or more residential units. This policy was supported by the planning inspector and was not challenged by Livingstone.

In short, we are skilled at administering and negotiating affordable housing and ensuring that developers are engaged with that process.

When challenged on the application of 50% affordable housing policy, Livingstone’s senior planners relate this figure to an average across the whole of London – in other words, allowing reduced levels of affordable housing in some London authorities to balance greater numbers in others. This is an unrealistic and unworkable approach, which would require “policy trading” between planning authorities.

More recently it came as a considerable shock when the adoption of Westminster’s overly-examined emerging UDP was halted by a direction from the Government Office for London last December. This direction came complete with the imposition of undemocratic and irrational replacement policies. These amounted to the enforcement of 50% affordable housing levels for all schemes outside the Central Activities Zone – a defined business area in Westminster including Soho. Worse still was the removal of any minimum level of development: the proclamation applied to schemes “regardless of size”.

The net result is less affordable housing, not more – 50% of nothing is nothing

Despite this intervention by GOL, to date there is not a single example of a successfully completed development yielding 50% affordable housing. The horizon is equally barren.

Bizarrely, in the government’s view the ability of such a policy to deliver the required result is not a policy objective. This can hardly be considered lucid thinking. The position is further confused by the inability of the Housing Corporation to fund this 50% target.

The reliance on the private sector to contribute affordable housing, and the commercial basis on which they must operate in order to exist, also appears to be ignored. A 50% target for affordable housing provision is an unfeasibly high level and can only result in the withdrawal of the private sector from the market in those areas affected in favour of authorities with a more balanced approach. The net result is less affordable housing not more. As has been said before, 50% of nothing is nothing.

Danny Chalkley is a Conservative member of Westminster council