Revealed: The social houses that never got built

Llyle, Mehreen and IsaacImage copyright

“Claustrophobic” is how Llyle describes living in a studio flat with his girlfriend, Mehreen, and their baby.

Isaac, now one, has been walking since he was 10 months old, and they worry about him getting too close to the electrics in the tiny rented flat in Ladbroke Grove, west London.

They’ve been on Kensington and Chelsea council’s housing waiting list since Isaac was born.

They even made it to number eight on the list before Grenfell happened. Then, the housing list website went down “until further notice”.

“I am not going to go down the town hall and make a big thing about, but it would be good to know where we stand.

“It gets unbearably hot in the flat and we are worried about Isaac’s safety,” says youth worker Llyle.

But one thing’s for sure – one of the 700 or so properties developers were supposed to have earmarked for social housing as they built and sold new homes in the borough would have done very nicely.

Affordable homes

Unfortunately for Llyle and his family, developers opted out of building hundreds of homes for people like him, arguing that the requirement made their property developments financially unviable.

New research from housing charity Shelter shows that in the past seven years, developers used what are known as “viability assessments” to reduce the amount of social or affordable housing they were required to build in the borough.

Kensington and Chelsea originally required 50% of new builds, across 96 schemes built since 2010, to be social rented homes or affordable homes for sale.

But as a result of the use of viability assessments, the rate of social housing in new builds reduced to 15% in the borough, according to Freedom of Information requests made by the charity.

Under the present housing system, the developer wins planning permission and part of that is promising to build a chunk of affordable homes in the scheme.

But they often come back and say building affordable homes on the site in question would make the overall scheme financially unworkable.

A viability assessment is completed, and if agreed independently, the developers are excused from having to deliver the affordable housing they promised.

Sometimes – but not always – the developer has to pay the local council a contribution towards building social housing elsewhere instead.

Shelter’s chief executive Polly Neate says she fears this may be happening in many places across the country at a time when there is a desperate need for more affordable homes.

‘Cast-iron pledges’

It was wrong, she said, that big developers were allowed to “prioritise their profits by building luxury housing while backtracking on their promises”.

“The government must make sure we treat affordable housing commitments as cast-iron pledges, rather than optional extras, and act now to close the loophole that allows developers to wriggle out of building the affordable homes this country urgently needs.”

The leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, Elizabeth Campbell, countered that in places like her borough, viability reports could result in the ability to build more homes, as developers could be asked to pay for the optout.

“That said, we are getting tougher with developers to ensure that where affordable housing can be provided, it is.

“Grenfell has focused everybody’s minds on the issue of housing and we want to find solutions,” she added.

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Planning director at the Home Builders Federation, Andrew Whitaker, said all affordable housing requirements were “aspirational targets” and based on an individual site’s viability.

“Without a willing landowner and developer you get no development and thus no affordable housing,” he added.

But that doesn’t change things for Llyle, Mehreen and Isaac.

“If we had a timeframe then at least we could plan properly and decide what we need to do,” says Llyle.

“It’s very frustrating because we can see what’s going on – they’re pushing people out.”

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