Transparency, housing and the Croydon Local Plan


By - Wednesday 7th October, 2015

Robert Ward has been doing some reading, and thinks that someone ought to explain to Croydon Council what the word ‘summary’ means


Extract from the cover of 2013′s Croydon Local Plan.
Image public domain.

Not for the first time, ‘transparency’ was freely bandied about at a recent council meeting. This time it was during discussions on the Croydon Local Plan (CLP) in which our council sets out the long term strategy for housing. But what does the t-word actually mean?

My definition is that it means decision-making that is visible and comprehensible to those of us who are impacted. We don’t get to vote on the decisions, but we do get to see the logic of the argument, the choices being made and the facts on which the decision is based. The consultation process for the CLP is just starting and since it addresses housing – arguably the most important issue over which the council has a large measure of control – it is a good test of transparency.

Having ploughed through some very long documents, I am impressed by how the definition is stretched. There is a very large number of words which cover all the ground, so one cannot argue that most of the information is not visible. Comprehensible is another matter. An explanation to the authors of what the word ‘summary’ means would be especially helpful.

Good decision-making demands that we should be able to compare doable alternatives

Here is how I think it works. Starting point is the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) which estimates long term housing needs and social housing in particular. Specific questions are the mix of tenures (owner-occupied, private rented or social rented); number of bedrooms; and types (flats or houses). There is a wide range of uncertainty because different methods give different results. Estimates of need are fitted into the context of ‘The Mayor’s Plan for London’ and what might be achievable.

The SHMA leaves a good deal of wiggle room. The firm choices and the political layer are laid out in the Croydon Local Plan – Strategic Policies backed up by the Croydon Local Plan: Detailed Policies and proposals, each with their various appendices.

Good decision-making demands that we should be able to compare doable alternatives. Here the plan falls woefully short. According to the Croydon Local Plan – Strategic Policies, there are no alternatives. This is absurd.

What if we build on the green belt, or build no more housing at all?

Exploring alternatives is where we challenge assumptions. What if we build on the green belt, or build no more housing at all? What would that mean? Some of you will scoff that we can’t possibly do these things. That may or may not be true, but unless we examine what we would lose and gain by doing the unthinkable, we make bad choices. Often just thinking about radical alternatives generates ideas that are both beneficial and doable.

Even within a narrow strategy there are choices. We have already listed some of them – what tenure and what size amongst others, but there are more. Yet there is no mention of options.

Without alternatives, it is impossible to meet another criterion of good decision-making: clarity on the inevitable trade-offs. More social housing means less of the other forms of tenure. More flats means fewer houses. If we avoid the green belt, we constrain ourselves on housing types and cost. Exploring trade offs and understanding their implications are what making good choices is all about.

The word ‘affordable’ doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means

Lastly, we need meaningful, reliable information worked through with logical reasoning. You should look for yourself but some points that stood out for me were:

  • The word ‘affordable’ is used frequently. It gives the impression to voters that it means ‘affordable to everyone’. ‘Affordable’ broadly means social housing plus homes for sale, and rent at below market prices, including shared ownership. These are homes for people who need to be catered for, but unless you are in that group, an ‘affordable’ home is not a home for you and the more of these there are, the fewer there are of other tenures.
  • The target for the proportion of social housing has increased. There is little justification shown, other than that Croydon has less social housing than the London average. That doesn’t mean that it should be prioritised. As I showed in a previous Citizen article, there is demand for all tenures.
  • The proportion of larger homes is being reduced; the proportion of low cost shared ownership within ‘affordable’ housing is being reduced, and the minimum for ‘affordable’ housing is raised from 15% to 50%.

More flats and fewer large homes may be in response to demand, but may also be because this results in a larger number of homes. Attractive, if that’s what makes the headlines. More social housing helps the council because there are currently social tenants in more expensive privately-rented accommodation. No bad thing to reduce the council’s bill, but without evidence, how do we judge these choices?

My view is that both Labour and the Tories have some housing policies that they believe are electorally popular, but which make housing provision more difficult. For both, avoiding building on the green belt is, probably rightly, firmly in the ‘too difficult’ box.

Public consultation on the CLP is your chance to understand these choices and maybe even have an impact. Don’t miss it.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Robert Ward

    At almost the same time as this was published, David Cameron was announcing that ‘affordable’ homes in the context of the likes of the CLP will be extended to include homes to buy, not just homes to rent. A very positive change in terms of clarity, but the definition of affordable is still one that will generate debate.

  • Robert Ward

    The link in this article will take you to the consultation information for the previous CLP. The new consultation documents have not been posted yet by the Council but can be found in the documentation of last week’s Cabinet meeting.

  • Anne Giles

    The green belt is important. We need our parks and open spaces.