The Truth About Developers

Developers… are exploiting planning authority and ruining our cities.

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Cheesegrater

The ‘Cheesegrater’ London (Google Images).

The truth about developers: they are exploiting planning authority and ruining our cities.

The Guardian, September 2014

“Affordable housing gets waived and the interests of residents trampled as toothless authorities bend to the desires and dazzling wealth of investors from China, the Middle East and Russia.”

Why is this happening? The same destructive forces are at work in Vancouver, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the global economy. How can we correct it? Is it possible to protect our neighbourhoods and our local values in the face of the global juggernaut? The two previous paragraphs and the rest of this post paraphrase this article in The Guardian by Oliver Wainwright. 

The former chief planner of the City of London takes the long view on goings on in the capital of our colonial mother:

“I always said you should never trust a bank with property, or a property developer with money. When I arrived in the job in the 1980s, the big banks were in control of London. But now it’s the big [condo tower] builders.”

Developers fuelled by the wealth of investors looking for ways to compound their earnings in as short a period as possible are putting up steroidal building schemes and causing irreparable harm to our cities:

“[I]n superheated London [and Vancouver] where stratospheric land values beget accordingly bloated developments – authorities are allowing planning policies to be continually flouted, affordable housing quotas to be waived, height limits breached, the interests of residents endlessly trampled. Places are becoming ever meaner and more divided, as public assets are relentlessly sold off, entire [districts] flattened to make room for silos of luxury safe-deposit boxes in the sky. We are replacing homes with investment units, to be sold overseas and never inhabited, substituting community for vacancy. The more we build, the more our cities are emptied, producing dead swathes of zombie town where the lights might never even be switched on… recasting the city as a network of privatized enclaves.”

The enabling legislature for the fire sale of local property to international consortia centers on a quid pro quo—local authorities bend the rules in exchange for: 

“the means of funding essential public services, from social housing to public parks, health centres to highways, schools to play areas. The bigger the scheme, the fatter the bounty, leading to a situation not far from legalized bribery – or extortion, depending on which side of the bargain you are on. Vastly inflated density and a few extra storeys on a tower can be politically justified as being in the public interest, if it means a handful of trees will be planted on the street.”

However, there is increasing evidence of botched bargaining

“Based on negotiation and discretion, the result is entirely down to the individual planning officer’s ability to squeeze out as good a deal as they can get, a battle that all too often ends in the developer’s favour.” 

The imbalance between the salary collected by the public servant and the developer sitting across the table is intimidating enough. Then, there may be the carrot of the hint of an offer of a future job in the private corporation. The end result is usually the same: additional height; no social housing anywhere in sight; and contagion of skyrocketing housing prices migrating from the new schemes out into the rest of the city. The results in London mirror Vancouver: the affordable component is mysteriously waived and replaced with hundreds more units solely for private sale, while the [community] contribution is reduced from the agreed upon sum—for example in one case in Tottenham—by as much as 75%. 

In the UK avoiding the community amenities contribution has spawned a new brand of consultancy advertised in one website as “saving tens, if not hundreds of thousands of [dollars]”.

In this climate the word ‘sustainable’ has shed all connections to social functioning, green issues or energy performance to concentrate solely on commercial viability. Disturbingly, this point of view has crept into new policy and regulations. 

The article closes with the case of Southwark Council challenging in the courts the order issued last year to follow disclosure law and reveal the full details of the business plan of a new tower development. The municipality argued that full disclosure under freedom of informantion would “damage” the opportunity for local redevelopment and revitalization. The developer pleaded the human right to the “peaceful enjoyment of its possessions” arguing that full transparency would amount to “unjustified interference with this enjoyment”.

The courts concluded that the information must be disclosed, stating that:

“the importance …. of local people having access to information to allow them to participate in the planning process outweighs the public interest in maintaining the remaining righs of [the developer].”

An encouraging precedent was set for local groups battling similar situations in the UK and elsewhere.

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