"You will notice that substantial redactions have been made to the documents..."
Back in October, the Salford Star revealed that Caspia Management Ltd and Robinsons Brewery had avoided £100,000s in planning payments for their development of the Brown Cow pub on Worsley Road.
The developers submitted a planning application to build 21 flats and 28 houses on the site but the Council agreed that they should only pay £185,000, instead of an estimated £277,000 for Open Space, Public Realm and Education mitigation, plus a conservative £360,000 for 20% affordable housing (see here).
A few days later, the Star reported that Portsmouth City Council was forcing developers to publicly reveal the 'viability assessments' that are used to avoid or evade planning fees... "We want to stop developers that are out to deceive people" said Portsmouth Councillor Steve Pitt (see here).
'Viability assessments' are documents that show costs taken from allowed rates of profit (up to 20%) and usually end up 'proving' that if the developer has to pay the full amount of planning fees, or provide the full amount of affordable housing, their profits won't be big enough.
Salford Council inevitably rolls over and usually either reduces the fees or cancels them altogether, sometimes inserting a 'clawback' clause whereby if profits are huge the city can get some money back.
With Portsmouth, in line with some other boroughs, attempting to force these viability assessments into the open, we thought we'd try to get the Brown Cow assessment under Freedom of Information.
The Salford Star had requested viability assessments for other sites previously but had always been turned down under the guise of 'commercial confidentiality' and, strangely, the 'public interest' (see here).
Today, after ten weeks (it's supposed to be twenty days) Salford City Council finally responded, sending the full viability report – all 22 pages of it – with every single figure, from the percentage of developer profit to costs and payments, redacted under huge blocks of black ink.
The only figures on show in the whole document were a £306,357 Section 106 contribution figure requested for Open Space and Education, with nothing about Public Realm or affordable housing; and an actual Section 106 figure of £195,000, plus a Section 278 payment of £12,000 (by the time it got to planning, the figure was £185,000).
Even without the Public Realm and affordable housing payments this still leaves a loss to the city of £199,357 – although how the developer got off with this payment is anyone's guess because all the figures are blanked out!
In the Freedom of information response to the Salford Star the Council wrote, without any hint of irony, "You will notice that substantial redactions have been made to the documents..."
It adds that disclosure would "adversely affect the economic interests of both the council and the developer".
The Council then, incredibly states that "Disclosure of this information would also damage the council's economic interests. Developers may be reluctant to develop in Salford if there is a very real risk that their critical commercial information may be disclosed and accessible to competitors.
"This would have very damaging financial and social impacts" it adds "for example the loss of section 106 monies, insufficient new housing, social housing and affordable housing to meet the needs of a growing population..."
You what? The whole point of making viability assessments public is to stop 'the loss of section 106 monies, insufficient new housing, social housing and affordable housing to meet the needs of a growing population...'!
The Salford Star estimates that almost £50million and over one thousand affordable houses have been lost to the city through developers avoiding planning fees via these assessments. There's now a whole industry of consultants helping developers avoid fees, and virtually every single developer in Salford gets their violins out at planning meetings pleading poverty...
And until these viability assessments are made public there's no way of knowing whether there's anything dodgy going on...
* The Brown Cow pub is currently being demolished to make way for the new development