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CN Briefing: viability assessments; London housing; Old Oak and Park Royal; Victoria Hills

Victoria Hills, the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation chief exec, had an interesting choice of words today when discussing the games that housing developers sometimes play.

In explaining why she wants her organisation to have as much control as possible over land use at the west London regen site, Ms Hills described viability assessments as “one of those dark arts”.

In doing so, she echoed the phrase used earlier this month in a letter to Boris Johnson from the London Assembly planning committee.

What both Ms Hills and planning committee chair Nicky Gavron are getting at is that the obscure use of these assessments is unduly influencing the type and volume of housing being provided for Londoners.

As this excellent Guardian investigation last summer revealed, some developers only consider schemes viable if they deliver margins of up to 25 per cent. Moreover, the assessments they use to calculate their eventual upside are shrouded in mystery.

In short, ‘viability’ is used to mask a multitude of sins. But, given that planning authorities often have neither the wherewithal nor statutory power to scrutinise developers’ proposals, they can get away with calling the tune.

And as every toddler knows, if you can get away with something you tend to keep doing it.

As an aside, it was fascinating to see that v-word creep into this morning’s reports that housing benefit cuts have led to housing associations scrapping plans to build sheltered accommodation units.

The loss of an average of £68 per week was deemed no longer viable, with one housing association claiming it would miss out on £100,000 a year as a result.

That sort of money would barely cover a deposit on most two-beds within the capital’s zone 2. Has there ever been a clearer illustration of the chasm between the housing market in London and the rest of the UK?

But perhaps the forthright language from the likes of Ms Hills and Ms Gavron is the beginning of a change. Perhaps the whip is being prised from the hands of developers, little by little, through both political pressure and the use of new tools such as mayoral development corporations.

With housing at the top of the agenda for both mayoral candidates, it would be no surprise to see a quiet revolution before Londoners go to the polls in May.

In the news

Hinkley Point C once again dominated news in the infrastructure world as EDF continued to insist work is close to starting on the much-delayed nuclear plant.

Nevertheless, as we revealed this morning, one forecaster isn’t factoring the £18bn project into its predictions.

One decision that has definitely been made, though: Bouygues UK has unveiled its first female chair.

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