Over the border: Epping Forest reduce affordable housing numbers in major developments

Planning / Sat 23rd Dec 2023 at 12:23pm

TORY-run Epping Forest District Council has faced a backlash, both internally and from local residents, after it followed planning officers’ recommendations to significantly reduce affordable housing provision within two key developments reports the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

On December 18 and 19, Epping Forest District Council (EFDC) held full council meetings discussing the trajectory of projects currently in progress under the authority’s established development company, Qualis, as well as the body’s four-year business plan and final quarter financial report.

The Qualis Group consists of two companies; Qualis Commercial and Qualis Property Solutions. Its website states its purpose is “to enhance the district through regeneration, investment and asset management to support the community”. This includes proposals for local housing schemes and amenities.

At the December 18 meeting, Councillor John Philip (Con. Theydon Bois), the council’s portfolio holder for finance and economic development, said that the key aim of Qualis’ updated four-year business plan would be to drive down debts “to a much more sustainable level”.

He said that it had been a “very short period of time since [the council] set up the company”, which is “not yet in a position where it can sell properties it has developed”. The long-term aim of EFDC is for Qualis to be fully independent, with profits from completed developments being shared with the administration for use towards statutory and non-statutory schemes.

Cllr Philip said: “It is really important both for the council and Qualis going forward that we make sure we achieve something sensible;

“A reduction in the loans to Qualis clearly means a reduction in the interest the council gets from the company… but that is not as big an issue as it might have been before.”

At peak debt, EFDC expects it has lent Qualis in marginal excess of £100 million, against the recommended limit of £156 million.

This, in combination with rising inflation and construction costs, has been identified as the catalyst for delivering significantly less affordable properties as part of the Qualis-led St John’s Road and Conder Building sites, the latter being on track for completion by Summer 2024.

At the December 19 meeting, councillors passed a majority vote in support of the planning officers’ recommendation to approve a deed of variation to the Section 106 agreements for the projects. St John’s Road will see a reduction in its affordable homes provision from 25 to 17 per cent, with there being a total of 184 dwellings within the development.

The Conder Building site, located behind the council’s Civic Offices and boasting 45 dwellings, will have its affordable homes provision scrapped entirely.

Speaking to the council, a local resident who is set to occupy one of the affordable homes on the St John’s site said that the reduction in affordable property and the decision to place the entire provision in one localised block within the development “does not promote social integration or lessen the stigma” of seeking less expensive accommodation.

In response, Councillor Ken Williamson (Con., Buckhurst Hill West) as the council’s portfolio holder for Regulatory Services said that all units on the St John’s site will be “tenure blind” and “at the heart of the block” to avoid any segregation.

However, a number of councillors called for a deferral and expressed frustration at debating the deed of variation at the December 19 meeting, with consideration of the fact that the item was originally flagged for discussion in February 2024 and many members had not had the opportunity to read the 200-page accompanying document.

Councillor Stephen Murray (Ind., Loughton Roding) said: “Though I make a strenuous effort to read every page I see… I haven’t been able to do that, which is something I feel applies to the bulk of members.

“The public perception of how [the council] is dealing with this doesn’t pass the sniff test. I don’t suggest for one minute the council is doing anything unconstitutional… but I think people believe we aren’t being straight-backed here.”

Speaking as a substitute in opposition to the deed of variation being agreed, Chigwell Parish Councillor Celina Jefcoate (Con.) told those in attendance that over the past four years, EFDC has delivered a total of only 19 affordable units across the district – less than five per year.

She added that Qualis not having a registered housing provider for homes on the Conder site so close to its projected completion was “at best naive, and at worst misleading”;

“Without a housing provider in place, some may doubt that Qualis ever intended to provide affordable housing.”

Managing Director of Qualis Commercial Simon Rutter, when called to speak, said that the reduction in affordable housing provision across the two projects “reflects the economic situation we all find ourselves in”.

He said that construction costs for the Conder Building had risen by 27 per cent, with the rise being closer to 50 per cent for the St John’s Road project.

“Despite our best efforts to mitigate these costs, we are simply unable to deliver the original affordable housing commitment we made,” he said.

“It’s important to Qualis that we find the right balance between deliverability and affordability to support our objectives across the district.”

Councillor Holly Whitbread (Con., Epping Lindsey and Thornwood Common), portfolio holder for Housing, said: “While (the council) is still ambitious for house-building, the costs have gone up so astronomically that the level and scale to which we can build has gone down.”

She said that the administration was in need of a “reality check” when assessing its capabilities and that she would be supporting the approval of the deed of variation “for the good of this council and the good of our community”.

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11 Comments for Over the border: Epping Forest reduce affordable housing numbers in major developments:

Luke Burton
2023-12-23 13:14:38

This is no surprise. It is the modus operandi of every single developer. Promise X number of "affordable housing" on a development and then when completion is near, plead to the council that the project is going to exceed the budget. Not at all surprising.

2023-12-23 14:25:39

Evidence that really no one gives a sh1t unless you have money. A sad world we live in now

Nicholas Taylor
2023-12-23 15:29:08

Readers may not know that the Local Development Plan of EFDC identified that 40% of new housing schemes should be affordable housing but now we hear that even it's own inhouse company cannot reach this target. This does not bode well for the thousands of homes which they, EFDC, propose will be built on land around Harlow's borders. Reader may not be aware that the vote taken was mostly on Party lines, those who wanted the report to be deferred until next February were voted down by the Conservative majority. It's all about the money, not housing need.

2023-12-23 16:33:33

Well slap me with a wet kipper and call me suprised. The council approval was based on 25 percent being affordable homes. Any deviation should require a new application no? If any council truly represented their people then they would insist on a reaplication and then refuse it. teach the developers that they cannot get planning permission with lies. If any council doesn't do this then one thing remains, follow the money.

Kim Priestley
2023-12-24 00:34:54

This just goes to show that all this building has nothing to do with housing NEEDS, just housing Wants

Derek Burt
2023-12-24 07:15:46

Outrageous decision regarding affordable homes in the presumed interest of the Tory party to be re-elected. Also where does EFDC get the £100m from and how do they service such s sum. The whole thing stinks of what Americans call pork barrel politics.

2023-12-24 09:02:08

How many Council houses and affordable home could the Council have built for £100 million? Average cost of building 3 bed home in uk to build is between £32k and £300k. A Council could employ it's own labour force to keep costs down rather than playing the market. It's not rocket science but the consequences of Conservative philosophy that market forces will solve everything however the only priority of business and property developers is to maximise profit.

Kim Oconnor
2023-12-24 10:28:47

No surprises here, All about the profits. And again not thinking of the people.

David Vincent
2023-12-24 21:23:45

Independent councillor Stephen Murray is correct when he says "this doesn’t pass the sniff test."

Nicholas Taylor
2023-12-25 10:30:08

David, you are right. I wonder why the rush to get this item on the agenda discussed that evening rather than in February. Judge Judy says, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it is a duck. In this case, it looks fishy, smells fishy, it is fishy.

2023-12-25 19:42:30

Qualis being given money from social purse and then using it to gentrify Epping. Please can I have 100 million to start up a company. If Epping council are purely building for commercial reasons then why are Qualis being given preferential treatment with land purchases from the council? There should be a tender system for the land purchase to ensure that the best price is archived for the land. It seems like the council only interested in lining its own pockets.

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