In the early 1970s, the architect Theo Crosby wrote a book called How to Play the Environment Game in which – in the days before the ‘environment’ was associated with biosphere or sustainability – he picked apart the ways in which planning and development had become a ‘game’ in which developers and planners managed the system for their mutual benefit and excluded the public.

His book has been in my mind because I’ve been watching, close-up, the machinations of Hammersmith and Fulham Council as it appears to collude with developers in rebuilding large chunks of the borough as highrise while trampling on the requirements for affordable housing laid out in the Borough’s core strategy (opens pdf), “that 40% of all additional dwellings built between 2011-21 should be affordable”.

And while, of itself, this is only the subject of local grief, there are some wider lessons.

Hammersmith and Fulham Council has become something of a byword for egregiously ambitious development since the present Conservative administration was elected in 2006. It isn’t clear why: the borough has enough office space (though some could do with refurbishing), and while – like the rest of London – it could do with quite a lot more affordable housing, this has largely been absent in the developments which the Council has promoted.

Unaffordable housing

I’m going to look at two recent development proposals in the Borough to try to explain how this development game works.

The first is the Fulham Reach development, overlooking the river downstream of Hammersmith Bridge. The plan, which was pushed through the council’s planning committee two months ago ago, is for eight residential blocks, of up to nine storeys.  This one’s a bit complicated, so I’ll go slowly. The Conservative administration had previously approved a six-storey office block on the same site, but when the commercial property market went south after the financial crash, developers came back with this new proposal. There are 740 units in the development, but only 25% are classified as ‘affordable’ – below the 40% figure in the Core Strategy. We’ll come to the reasons for this in a moment. The affordable units were so small (‘Manhattan’ studio flats, in developer and estate agent language) that one member of the Planning Committee said that anyone who bought one would have problems re-selling it.

Bait and switch

Now, the developers said they couldn’t provide more affordable housing because the development wouldn’t be viable if they did. But although the planning officers have seen these sums, the public isn’t allowed to: they are commercially confidential. In other words, the developer is allowed to ignore public planning guidelines, but the public isn’t allowed to make a informed judgment on whether it is reasonable for them to do so. (Hammersmith Council has even tried to prevent Opposition councillors from seeing the sums.)

The other aspect of the Fulham Reach development that’s worth noticing is the role of the previously approved office block as a stalking horse for the more profitable residential development. First, planning officers judged that because there was already permission for a six storey office building, it was reasonable to give permission for residential blocks of up to ninw storeys (apparently different criteria apply). Likewise, one of the grounds for objecting to developments is on the grounds of traffic impact. To my untrained ears, the traffic densities quoted at the Planning Committee meeting seemed excessive. But because planning approval had already been given for the office block, with similar traffic densities, it was not possible to object on these grounds. In other words, it worked in a similar way to the classic sales bait and switch. But the ‘mark’, in this case was the public and the public interest.

An unashamed land grab

The second development proposal went to the Council’s planning committee this week. It is a plan – promoted by the Council for the past five years –  to demolish part of Hammersmith Town Hall (the ugly bit) and adjacent blocks and build some huge residential blocks. The plans have been fiercely contested by well-informed local groups and by London and national heritage organisations, including English Heritage: in the planning papers there are 30 pages just listing the names of objectors.

But there’s one striking thing about this proposal: it is an unashamed land grab, on behalf of the rich, at the expense of community assets. First, consider the development itself, quite apart from its lack of design features: 290 luxury apartments, with no affordable housing. Plus a new supermarket, in an area already well-endowed with supermarkets. And, lest I forget, large and shiny new Council offices (so no conflict of interest there, obviously).

And now consider what will be removed to make way for it: some long-established affordable housing, including some sheltered accommodation for the blind; a (profitable) cinema – unlike supermarkets, the nearest cinemas are some way away – and worst of all, a large area of the riverside public park Furnival Gardens, apparently required as a landing area for a bridge from the development over the A4, the bridge itself a stipulation by the developer to help sell the flats. (There is already a decent foot and bike tunnel under the road just metres from the proposed buildings.) It’s said that one of the reasons the blocks need to be so tall is to let the 0.1% who will be able to afford to buy them piss better on the rest of us.

The planning committee meeting convened to discuss the planning application was moved to a nearby school hall for reasons which were unclear; 40 or more people were shut out because the hall wasn’t large enough. The speaker system wasn’t good enough to enable people at the back to hear what was being said.

Looking like Croydon

Most councillors I’ve met, regardless of party, are in it at least in part out of a sense of civic virtue. It’s unglamorous work, mostly, the hours are long, the financial rewards modest. So it’s difficult to see what’s motivating Hammersmith’s councillors. They claim the Town Hall  development (like many of the other proposals which have been shunted through) is necessary for the regeneration of the Borough, though most of the proposals are too far away from the economic centres of the borough to have this effect. And you probably don’t want to be remembered in your obituaries as the person who made Hammersmith look like Croydon.

Perhaps we’ll find out the real story when someone finally manages to follow the money. Or perhaps – as has been suggested – what’s going on is a form of social cleansing, to remove the non-Conservative voting poor and replace them with richer Conservative voters. This may backfire: successive planning meetings have been attended by increasingly large numbers of objectors, a good proportion of whom would likely have voted for the Conservatives last time around. As to the vote on the Town Hall development, dear reader, don’t hold your breath. Despite a devastating critique by a local Conservative councillor of the planning officers’ case for the development, the Conservative bloc on the planning committee shunted the thing through, pausing only to add some minor conditions for window-dressing. [Update, 17th December: It appears that the Mayor of London has blocked the plan, at least for the moment.]

It was worth attending the planning committee meeting, however, to learn that the developers’ “expected rate of return” on a development was 20%. To put that in context, the rate of return businesses can expect in competitive markets, when the economy is healthy, is 10% or less. But note that 20% figure. It plays a critical role in how the council plays the development game. For the Core Strategy also states (Box H2) that “financial viability” is a criteria in making decisions on affordable housing, and a planning officer made it clear during the hearing the finance criteria trumped the policy on affordable housing. But when the rate of return is set so high, in an area where land prices are high, affordable housing will always be squeezed out.

Ownership or stewardship

Theo Crosby got more radical as he got older, more frustrated by the lack of democratic participation in the planning system. Right now, the government plans to make it even less democratic, citing largely spurious arguments about economic growth. Actually, at a national level, the proposed changes in the planning system are just a version of what’s already happening in Hammersmith: they are a way to transfer public and community assets to corporations which can make money from them. And one of the striking things about the rapacious way in which Hammersmith and Fulham has set about selling off public and community assets is how little protection such assets have. And when it asked residents what they throught about such sales, residents were strongly against (opens pdf). But a political administration – essentially temporary – is treated under law as if it owns public assets which should actually be held in trust or stewardship.

When it is no longer possible to make money legitimately, you have to find ways of abstracting it. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has even made this process more straightforward by instructing councils to publish lists of their assets.  Some rob you with a gun, and some with a fountain pen.