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Property developers’ squeeze on new homes

Westminster Property Association claims it has persuaded council chiefs to ‘temper’ new guidelines, meaning commercial schemes could be favoured over residential

06 April, 2018 — By Tom Foot

Council leader Nickie Aiken last year issued a warning to property developers that the council would no longer accept applications that did not meet an affordable housing threshold

A GROUP of property developers claim to have successfully lobbied the council into introducing a new planning policy that will see housing in future development sites “minimised”.

The Westminster Property Association boasts of having managed to “temper” new guidelines soon to be unveiled by Westminster City Hall.

While the new “mixed use policy” would ensure the ratio of affordable homes on new sites increases, the overall space for residential would be squeezed in favour of bigger commercial schemes.

The WPA, which counts more than 250 of the ­borough’s real estate companies as paid-up members, says it holds regular meetings with the council and aims to “influence its direction”. It recently put on a dinner for “senior councillors” at an exclusive restaurant in St James’s.

The WPA’s most recent “quarterly update” to members said: “In particular, WPA has engaged positively to temper emerging mixed use policy so that provision of affordable housing is prioritised whilst the amount of space given over to residential, rather than commercial, use as a whole is minimised.” It added: “This approach has been welcomed and, we understand, accepted in principle.”

The council yesterday (Thursday) said it was still in the process of finalising its new policy but “categorically rejected” accusations it could be swayed by a ­single organisation.

]The council leader Nickie Aiken last year issued a warning to property developers that the council would no longer accept applications that did not meet an affordable housing threshold.

Councillor Robert Davis

In her Housing a City For All announcement last year, she said “we are not simply going to take the cheque from developers, as has often happened in previous years”, adding: “They will have to make on-site provision for affordable housing. It will be a rigorously applied policy.”

The WPA on January 30 held a “dinner for senior councillors” at a the swanky nordic-themed Aquavit restaurant in St James’s. Elected representatives feasted on a menu rich with duck breast and liquorice, Swedish kroppkakor dumplings and Arctic bird’s nest pudding.

The exclusive dinner is listed in the gifts and hospitality section of the register of interests of former planning chairman Councillor Robert Davis.

Cllr Davis faced national media scrutiny for his extensive meetings with developers over the past three years.

He has “stepped as­ide” from his role as deputy leader of the council and cabinet roles pending an internal investigation but has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly pointed out that he has been a faithful and responsible local government servant since the 1980s.

Since the media interest in his gifts and hospitality, no entries have been made by any cabinet councillors at all, other than Cllr Aiken, who recorded that she and her family “enjoyed a game of bowling and dinner at Queens in Queensway which I won in the South East Bayswater Residents’ Association raffle at its AGM”.

WPA’s executive director is Charles Begley, who before joining it spent five years in the communications department at the council. He was invited to comment on the WPA’s statement, and whether its regular meetings with councillors and officials were ethical, but he did not respond.

The council is currently working on its City Plan and Right Kind of Growth consultation, which proposes building taller buildings. Publication of these framework documents has been delayed until after the May 3 election.

A council statement said: “The council has a clear policy to create more housing in Westminster and is delivering 1,850 new affordable homes by 2023 in line with local and national targets.

“This priority is informing the development of new City Plan policies and we have made clear that we are going to change policies on mixed use and are currently considering options for doing this as our overall goal is to deliver as much affordable housing as we can.

“We have given formal public notice of the fact we are revising the City Plan. We do talk to the Westminster Property Association along with other organisations, resident groups, agencies and representative bodies as we develop our policies. Once developed, these policies will then be the subject of public consultation and a formal examination in public conducted by an independent inspector as part of formal and open process which anyone can take part in.

“We categorically reject any suggestion that any one organisation can have influence over our planning policies.

“However, it is important that council officers and members meet with groups, such as resident representatives and also with developers to communicate council policy and ensure development works for our residents, businesses and visitors.”

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