Derelict duty

Pillars of society: homelessness protesters pitch up in St Peter’s Square, Manchester.

How collective will pushed back a decade of council neglect by Liam Mullany.

Were you to listen to any media interview with leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, you might believe that Manchester’s housing has undergone a radical, utopian transformation since he arrived in the 1980s. Yet the city has an uncontrollable homelessness situation, severe housing shortages and ballooning house prices. Is the councillor grossly deluded? Or is he omitting part of the story? The disparity between what we are told and what we see has led myself, and many others in the city who were previously virgin to the world of campaigning, to try to find out.

I was a working musician and a paid-up member of Manchester’s music and party scene. At the same time, I couldn’t avoid noticing the growing number of people sleeping on the streets as I made my way to each gig.

Many of their faces became familiar and each was a regular reminder of a world outside music where things weren’t so great. Maybe living with the continuous uncertainty of musical freelance work made it a little easier to imagine how people end up on the street. So I volunteered at a local advice centre for homeless people – two days a week for a year serving food, comfort and advice to their “clients”.

Immediately it was clear they really needed to get some better music. So I organised jam sessions with Manchester’s top session musicians. Given the musician’s natural disinclination to start the day bright and early, it was amazing how many musicians were willing to get up at 8.30am on a Wednesday morning to play. The energy was electric. The crowd always receptive. But it wasn’t enough.

“In a bid to encourage housing development, councils were allowed to waive the obligation on developers to provide affordable housing if they believed they could not make a “competitive return” on a development.”

More people were coming through the doors of the centre every day. Why? I wanted to find out. In the summer of 2016, I asked national petition organisations, local activist groups and council members what they thought were the causes behind Manchester’s chronic housing crisis. Typical replies cited the lack of demand following the 2008 crash, the privatisation of council houses and the local council debt restrictions.

While they seemed to make sense, there appeared to be a missing piece to the puzzle and I wondered if this was something to do with the policy requiring developers to provide affordable housing. And it was.

Following the crash, national planning regulations were changed. In a bid to encourage housing development, councils were allowed to waive the obligation on developers to provide affordable housing if they believed they could not make a “competitive return” on a development. In fact the council could waive requirements to make any other societal contributions. The decision to waive was based on a viability assessment submitted to the planning authorities… by the developer.

Even if you accept that as sensible, given the economic situation in 2008, ten years on, the legislation still stands. Furthermore, the term “competitive return” remains vague and the developers do not have to disclose their viability assessment calculations to the public.

And a 2017 study by Shelter1 found that developers in England had been massaging the numbers extensively. Shelter pointed out that for the 2,362 homes where viability assessments were used by developers in Manchester, they had managed to justify providing no affordable houses[1]. None.

Manchester City Council actually has a conservative policy anyway, only requiring that 20% of developments must be “affordable.” It even fell short of this target by 472 homes.

This would not be so great a problem were councils willing to build housing themselves. But in a climate of “fiscal discipline” (austerity) and “market efficiency” (pursuit of profit), this has not been an option for councils for a long time. So, the impetus to build homes that normal working people can afford falls firmly on the shoulders of the cut-throat development industry. We managed to discover exactly how cut-throat it was from leaked documents. We found that, based on the certainty that they can avoid any obligation to build affordable housing, some developers were using the money saved to over-bid on land plots and undercut competitors who factored in the cost of affordable housing.

“So I had the basis for a campaign.”

So I had the basis for a campaign. I started with a petition on 38 Degrees simply asking the council to make viability assessments publicly available. After all, who would argue against transparency? Others had a similar viewpoint – five other people had started similar petitions. So we got together and managed to pull the separate petitions into one.

All was going well so far. So I looked for a councillor to back the campaign. I wrote to councillors who had shown an interest in housing issues, including my own representatives. This was where things began to get strange.

From most I received complete radio silence. My constituency councillors sent apologetic emails stating my petition “was not hosted on the official website,” or even that they did not think there was anything wrong with the affordable housing provision. This seemed pretty odd considering we were not questioning the provision but asking for transparency and we had strong public support.

I soon learnt from other campaigners that Manchester City Council, had taken a number of decisions which indicated they were cosying up to large developers. The council’s plan seemed to have been to encourage development of the city centre with luxury one/two-bed apartments to attract young professionals into the city, regardless of who had to be displaced in the short run. It turned out that transparency wasn’t quite the apolitical policy I had believed it to be.

In the subsequent six months I became increasingly active in the expanding network of housing campaigners in Manchester and the issue of viability assessments was being increasingly talked about. Local newspaper, The Salford Star, was running articles almost weekly naming and shaming new developments and their lack of affordable housing provision. However, it was only when the Manchester Evening News ran a story on the subject that things changed. The petition went from around 1,200 signatures to 3,000 in one week. I was soon inundated with emails from councillors to the tune of: “Sorry, I must have misplaced your email”.

Some councillors began tentatively to express their support for the campaign. I met with one of my constituency councillors to discuss how to take things further. At his request, my fellow campaigners and I prepared a report on the viability of making assessments transparent to help councillors to develop a backbench motion. We drew on a number of sources including an exposé by Shelter,2 Sadiq Khan’s London Supplementary Planning Guidance 3 and a report on financialisation of housing by Jon Silver.4 We submitted our report and waited.

“I wrote to councillors who had shown an interest in housing issues, including my own representatives. This was where things began to get strange.”

Finally, in March 2018 the councillors put forward a motion. Initially it still provided developers with the potential to avoid scrutiny. But eventually we got the policy proposal we were looking for out to consultation. And in December 2018 the council announced that it was going to consider building 3,000 council homes in the centre of Manchester. This was a massive turnaround from its development strategy and a great success for the multiple campaigns around Manchester’s housing scene.

However, the battle is far from over. We have yet to see the results of the public consultation on transparency of viability assessments where much of the progress could be reversed. There are still many parties interested in keeping them private.

This issue has now been taken up nationally. In July 2018 the Government announced: “Any viability assessment should be prepared on the basis that it will be made publicly available other than in exceptional circumstances.”5 But this is still guidance rather than an absolute requirement.

Meanwhile, the number of people sleeping rough keeps growing. The services are unable to cope. Their only option is to find ever more creative ways to wash their hands of their obligations.

The campaign is a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go. Many councils across the UK still keep viability assessment out of public sight. Residents need to put pressure on local councils for this to change. If Manchester can change, with its history of large developments, so can the rest of the country.

  1. Rose Grayston, 2017, Slipping through the loophole – how viability assessments are reducing affordable housing supply in England, Shelter
  2. Ibid Shelter
  1. Mayor Of London, 2017, Homes For Londoners – Affordable Housing and Viability Supplementary Planning Guidance
  2. Jonathan Silver, February 2018, the financialisation of housing in Greater Mancheste
  3. National Planning Policy Framework, July 2018