Andrew Boff, a Conservative member of the London Assembly is calling for an end to the confidentiality of the viability assessments in planning applications from property developers.
This was the sort of cause that Labour in Hammersmith and Fulham used to be keen on – when they were in opposition. Since they took control of the Council last year they have got rather more keen on cosy private deals with property developers. It allows them to make all sorts of claims about when a splendid deal they have negotiated without having to cope with proper scrutiny of the reality.
John Finlayson, the Council’s Head of Planning and Regeneration, writes to tell me the administration’s policy:
“Over the last decade issues relating to the financial viability of development have become increasingly important in the English planning system. Financial viability is a material planning consideration in terms of the likelihood of the proposed development being carried into effect. This can be a very important issue when assessing the acceptability or otherwise of a development proposal, particularly where the proposal may not accord with the targets set by planning policy. The government encourages local planning authorities not to impose requirements on developers which render proposals non-viable unless serious harm would arise.
In order for the Council as planning authority to properly determine the effect of planning requirements on development viability, the assessment and negotiation of planning applications frequently involves the consideration of financial and commercial appraisals prepared by developers. Such appraisals invariably contain commercially confidential and sensitive information. Where such information is provided by an applicant to the Council on a commercially confidential basis, the Council is under a duty to not to disclose that information to anyone else unless allowed or required to do so by law.
Applicants do typically seek to place confidential restrictions on all aspects of viability information. This normally takes the form of seeking an exemption from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 on the basis that this would adversely affect the confidentiality of commercial information which protects a legitimate economic interest. The current approach to financial viability is therefore somewhat opaque and any move to greater transparency will be very much dependent on the approach of the courts to disclosure.
In LBHF since 11 October 2011 there has been a Disclosure of Confidential Information Protocol. The Protocol deals with information which is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the Local Government Act 1972. The protocol was prepared by Legal and Planning officers and it sets out further guidance in respect of requests by Committee members for information relevant to planning matters submitted in confidence by third parties. The protocol should be read in conjunction with the Local Protocol For Officers On Access To Information in the Council’s Constitution.”
So there we have it. No convincing reason for secrecy. The Council could insist on transparency in this regard. What have the property developers got to hide? But the Council chooses not to. Don’t blame Mr Finlayson – blame his political masters.
My own view is that transparency would actually help boost the confidence and understanding of residents in the planning system and thus help get the homes built that are wanted.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant.