Saturday 14 March 2015

Less than best, or: in a private space - the secret story of West Hendon

Eric Pickles: pic courtesy of the Guardian

In the course of the Inquiry into the compulsory purchase orders of homes in the doomed West Hendon estate, one thing above all else became absolutely clear: the fatal absence of information central to the matter under review; an omission that was deliberate, strategic - and fundamentally wrong.

That information was the viability report, the original basis for agreement between Barnet Council and Barratts in regard to the latest, bastardised version of what had originally been intended to be, many years previously, under a Labour council, a genuine programme of regeneration, but has now become a massively profitable private development, using public land, land which we know now to have been given away, not sold.

I say not sold: in fact that is unfair. Three parcels of land were bought for £1 each, for a site valued at the time as being worth more than £12 million.

This 'Poundland' deal secured for Barratts a unique opportunity for a private development on the edge of the beautiful Welsh Harp reservoir, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, fringed by open space, a sanctuary in the otherwise relentlessly urban landscape of this area of north west London. 

A unique opportunity, of course, that has been achieved by default, or rather by stealth, smuggled through the gates of scrutiny like the Trojan horse, in the guise of a scheme meant to improve the local community, but which in fact will destroy that community, raze it to the ground, to be replaced by luxury housing, luring overseas investment or those fortunate few able to afford the non 'affordable' price of properties, and neatly facilitating the Tory agenda of gerrymandering the poorer, Labour voting areas of the borough out of existence.

How did we get to this point? We went into the process of the Inquiry knowing only that we did not know, well, what we did not know: the details of the agreement between Barnet and Barratts, and in particular the nature of the viability study. Requests for this information had always been rebutted, and now at the Inquiry, when the Inspector was asked to demand the release of the study, the consistent argument against doing so from Barnet and Barratts, a line stoutly maintained by their counsel, was that this information was not relevant. 

At the same time, however, the developers and the local authority insisted the compulsory purchase order for the properties in West Hendon were absolutely essential to - ah, yes: the viability of the scheme. 

Phase 3, the stage involving these three bargain basement pieces of land, was itself essential to the success - for that read profitability - of the entire development. 

So: we were not entitled to know the details of the 'viability' they claimed was so perilous, yet the Inquiry was expected simply to take the word of developers and the council that this was the case, and feel sympathy with their plight, acting as they were, as pioneers in the brave new world of faux regeneration.

This desperate need to secure the 'order lands' was the real driving force behind the merciless treatment of leaseholders and tenants on the estate, and the issue of York Memorial Park was crucial to the matter too: it was necessary, from the point of view of the development, to set about denying the historical significance of the area in question, just as surely as it was to demolish the properties which stand in the way of Barratt's profiteering.

As the Inquiry hearings finished, and Inspector Zoe Hill went off with her library of core documents, sans viability study, one or two of us, who had sat through the two weeks of the process with rapidly mounting suspicions, decided to submit Freedom of Information requests for information relating to the development. The recent ruling by the ICO in favour of enforcing the publication of a similar viability report regarding Greenwich Council was encouragement enough to ask for what should have already have been in the public domain, and certainly should have been available to the Inquiry.

West Hendon Councillor Adam Langleben made a request to Barnet Council: and Mrs Angry made two, one to Barnet, and the other to the Department of Communities and Local Government, expecting, as was to prove the case, that the outcome in terms of response on broadly the same subject would be different, depending on the varying sensitivities of the respective bodies.

To Barnet Council:

Please send me copies of the letter and enclosures of August 7th 2013, sent by Barnet Council to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and referred to in a letter of 25th September, by a Ms Karen Rose, applying for consent to dispose of land at West Hendon. 

Please send me copies of any other correspondence relating to the disposal, to or from DCLG and Barnet Council.

This arrived with some redactions of names, and a dozen or so documents, some of which were inocuous enough, maps and notices already seen. These appeared to be padding, in fact, and possibly meant to fill the gap of other material held but not disclosed, as we shall see.

To the Department of Communities and Local Government, then, a request asking for:

Copies of all correspondence between the DCLG and Barnet Council regarding the disposal of land in West Hendon, which received consent in September 2013, and any memoranda or related documents, including such as may be from, to or by the Secretary of State.

So: broadly the same request, although oddly, the more specific one to Barnet failed to winkle out the correspondence referred to regarding the letter of 27th September, whereas DCLG sent what I had asked Barnet for, but did not receive: curious, is it not? Still, the belt and braces approach seemed to be quite effective, even if not all information has - as yet - been released.

As to the material sent from Barnet Council, the most obviously interesting document was a Development Appraisal from the Valuation Office Agency, dated July 20th, 2013full of stuff about such things as the 'Standalone Development',  and grandly sub-headed, 'The West Hendon Masterplan' ... 

Aha  ... The Masterplan

Yes: full of interesting details about the projected costs, fees - profit. And 'assumptions'. Masterplans tend to be built on a foundation of 'assumptions', don't they? Or delusions of grandeur.

Hard for a mathematical eejit like Mrs Angry to interpret these figures, and indeed they required reading, and re-reading, and a lot of head scratching, and checking with some of the more numerate bloggers of Broken Barnet, before she could be quite sure that some of those numbers, hidden so innocently on the page, amongst the costs for road works, and stamp duty, were, after all, the truly incendiary facts underlying this development.

The 'net realisation' of the 'regeneration' is estimated at £510, 516,436. 00.

The costs, including the architect's fee, at a stonking 8%, or £17,061,782.00, nearly £7 million more than the amount paid to the council as Section 106 funding, come to £418,182,108.00.

This means - and this is where you may wish to reach for your hankie, and dab your eyes - the hard pressed developers, or so we are told, will be making a profit of - of only ... £92,234,108.00.

Don't know about you, but when engaged in cobbling together a luxury housing development on public land, given away for £3, and masquerading as the regeneration of a council estate in West Hendon, Mrs Angry doesn't even consider getting out of bed for anything under £93 million. 

The very thought. 

Barratts, therefore, must be congratulated for being prepared to build their ghastly, 32 storey hideouts for all those Russian 'oligarchs', out of favour, doomed to live in exile amongst the kebab shops of West Hendon, instead of the saltmines in Siberia. 


Almost an act of charity, you might say, by these developers - or a demonstration of philanthropic devotion in the field of housing comparable only to Mr Peabody, or our own local heroine, here in Finchley: that pioneer of affordable housing, Octavia Hill.


Of course presumably £92,234, 108.00 is only an 'assumption'. You never know, with a bit of luck, property values being, as they have been since then, on an upwards direction, maybe they might just be able to screw a little more profit from all that effort. More like £92,234, 109.00.

But then, hang on ... let's skip forward to the last document released, a Market Value report for Phase 3, prepared for the Valuation Office by DVS, the District Valuer Service, this is, we are informed  'to establish the market value for a proposed disposal of less than best consideration ...'

And here was another calmly listed set of figures, which again required reading, and re-reading, and not so much head scratching as a reaction of stupefied disbelief.

The three parcels of land that are required by Phase 3 of the scheme are valued as follows:

Phase 3 (i) -   Unrestricted Value: £3,100,000
                         The unrestricted value: £1.

Phase 3(ii) -    Unrestricted Value: £8,890,000
                          Restricted value: £1.

Phase3(iii) -    Unrestricted Value: £325,000

                          Restricted Value: £1.

All three parcels of land had 'nil value'  declared in regard to the 'voluntary conditions'.

Unrestricted value, we are told, is 'similar' to market value ... 'but includes the amount that a special purchaser may be willing to pay' ... 

Of course that does not specify whether or not the definition of 'special purchaser' means one who wants a value below market value. Restricted value, ie the Poundland price? And what about those 'voluntary conditions'?

According to this, the valuation of £1 for each piece of land reflects the voluntary conditions by which Barnet will benefit from the disposal at less than best consideration ... voluntary conditions that we are told have 'nil value'. Oh. 

Confused? Me too. Because on face value, if one dares to use the term, it would appear to indicate that we have given Barratts the land for £3 rather than £12 million, for no financial benefit. 

Well, perhaps Mrs Angry has misunderstood.

The second parcel of land, by the way, though you wouldn't know it from the description, includes York Park - York Memorial Park, the open space which commemorates the many civilian lives lost in the terrible bombing of February 1941. 

Worth, in financial terms, around £9 million. 

In terms of social history, and the significance to a community being violated and destroyed in a campaign rather more effective than the one perpetrated by the Luftwaffe: beyond estimation. 

Sold to Barratts for £1. 

(And here is a curious thing: the document which show the notice published - in a way most people would not have seen it - in July 2013, for the disposal of York Park is in the name of the then Director for, oh dear: 'Place', Pam Wharfe, now departed from Barnet. Curious because her name, given as formal authorisation, is misspelt, twice, on the notice, in big letters, as Wharf). 

We have been told by Barnet Council that the land was given away because of the marvellous deal offered by Barratts, to supply, within their private development, some affordable housing, and also that this deal was only possible if the land was given away, due to the viability of the scheme, and the need for the developers to make sufficient profit from the scheme.

The extract above, from the Application, and disclosed by DCLG, is blaming the requirement to deliver affordable housing for the developers' insistence on the land being 'transferred' to them for the price of only £3.

It may be that Mrs Angry is naive, and not grasping the point here, but it does seem that £92 million profit, plus presumably grants from central government, and tax free conditions that accompany so called regeneration projects have created a deal which entirely favours the developers, and not the taxpayers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, whose land, worth at least £12 million, has been so easily disposed of. Paying market value, or at least the unrestricted value, would still have left them with a few quid in the bank, wouldn't it?

And as Cllr Langleben has pointed out here

... as you will see, the point I am making is that in a world where Barnet Council didn’t own the land – Barratt would have had to cough up 20% anyway – but in the case of West Hendon they didn’t even have to pay for the land and they are still only providing basically half of the Council’s affordable housing target and most importantly – in line with developments nearby like Pulse where the land was bought at full market value.

Caught in the middle of this bargain basement giveaway are the people of West Hendon, the tenants and leaseholders being forced from their homes, after living for years on a building site, their lives made hell, unable to sell up and go, unable to find secure accommodation, their amenities taken from them, their local park built on, their community destroyed, and every promise made to them at the time of the original agreement broken.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government - or his representatives - has allowed the local authority in Barnet to destroy a local community, in fact, on the basis of a scheme put to him as representing something that has not happened: the provision of affordable housing to which residents already living there had a right to access. 

To look at the documents released by FOI requests, and indeed listening to the jabbering of Tory councillors even now, we can see quite clearly that there was an expectation of residents on the estate transferring to the new properties, the Tory leader as recently as last month claimed that this would be the case. Yet as we heard over and over again at the Inquiry, leaseholders are effectively barred from the new housing because the council's Capita supplied valuers absolutely refused to give a valuation of their homes that was sufficiently high to enable them to apply for shared equity for any property, despite evidence submitted that indicates the Capita values are below market rate.

The crucial point here then is whether or not the Secretary of State or any of his officials at DCLG dealing with the application  to dispose of the three parcels of land, for the knockdown price of £3, was assured that residents' ability to take up the offer of rehousing in the development had been safeguarded. 

If such undertakings were made, then clearly the Secretary of State was misled: if not, why did he, or his junior minister, knowingly approve the action? 

Well: it should be the case that, in the interests of transparency, of course, the reasoning behind the approval of the cutprice disposal is in the public domain, to allay any fears by local taxpayers that the deal does not represent value for money. 

After all, Eric: you keep banging on about localism, and empowering communities: did you mean only empowering middle class, Tory voting communities, after all? 

And do the people of West Hendon not have the right to take an informed part in the process of consultation that affects their lives to such a profound degree, and is now destroying that community, by default, by stealth, and by your leave? 

Who took these decisions? On whose advice? 

What do the documents released in the FOI tell us?

Oh dear. 

When it comes to anything touching on this sensitive matter, guess what? It has been refused, or redacted. The response informs Mrs Angry that some information has been withheld because:

... there is a need to protect the safe policy space for recommendations to be considered. This exception can apply to information in whatever form it may take including memos, notes of meetings or emails and can include submissions i.e. consideration templates to ministers in government departments, information passed between officials in the course of their duties, internal minutes and briefs. Therefore we have redacted any recommendations, considerations or non-factual information, though factual information has been released.

The response continues:

In this case disclosure of the information you have requested would be the disclosure of advice that was provided to Ministers and which they were able to take into account in reaching a decision. The public interest is of course served by knowing that the advice that has been provided to Ministers is accurate and appropriate. 

However, the Department must also consider that there is a very strong public interest in ensuring that Ministers can receive advice from officials within an appropriate degree of private thinking space. Whilst it may be appropriate to disclose factual information that provides an informed background to Ministers, it may not be appropriate to disclose actual advice, which may include the recommendation that officials have made. 

We consider that this changes the need for Ministers to be able to receive advice and guidance from officials in the knowledge that it will remain within an appropriate degree of private thinking space, unless there is an at least comparably strong public interest in releasing that advice. We believe that it is particularly important that officials have the space within which to advise Ministers on sensitive and challenging issues without being constrained by the knowledge that the advice may subsequently be challenged in public. Ministers must also have the freedom to disagree, if that is their conclusion, with the recommendations and advice given. 

A private space, for thinking. A safe space.

Rather a nice idea, isn't it? Shades of Virginia Woolf, a Room of One's Own: a virtual chaise longue on which Eric Pickles may recline, with a box of chocolates & a glass of sherry, thinking awfully hard, but in a private way, safely and blissfully unaccountable to the beastly spoilsports and nosy parkers who want to know why their council is giving away free land to private developers.

Hmm. Is this good enough, from the department run by the man who says he wants local government to be accountable to the people who pay the council tax that funds it? No, frankly, it is not, and of course Mrs Angry has objected to the withholding of this vital information, and will take it to the ICO, in due course, if they persist in stonewalling.

Was Pickles even briefed, formally, or informally, on West Hendon, or was it all decided by junior ministers and officials? We do not know.

In the meanwhile, we must make do with some redacted documents, including a letter sent on the 20th September 2013 to planning minister Nick Boles, from someone (name redacted) at the National Planning Casework Unit. 

Issue: Whether to grant London Borough of Barnet consent.

This tells Mr Boles the sad story - get that hankie out again - sniff, that if the developers are not given the land for free, and a social housing grant of £5.5 million, they will incur a loss of £18 million. What they call 'a high level of affordable homes', needed to 'decant' those pesky residents, is what is to blame, see?

Never mind that secure tenants and their children are being packed into a horrible building outside the boundary of the luxury development, in a holding area overlooking the grimy backyards and businesses of the Edgware Road. 

Or that the estate has been deliberately filled with non secure tenants living for years on temporary contracts, to minimise their rights to rehousing.

Or that leaseholders were about to be hammered with ten thousand pound bills for maintenance the authority has failed to implement.

Or that those same leaseholders, who did the thing our Tory councillors so admire, aspired to 'better' themselves, and join the property owning classes, were shortly to find no one cared when they pointed out the council's valuation of their homes, by Capita, for Capita, conveniently made sure they were unable to obtain a new home on the development?

And Mrs Angry is still puzzled by the figures here. Subtract £18 million, from £92 million, and  ... that leaves, erm ...? Quite a lot of money, doesn't it? 

Especially when you consider that Barratts announced recently announced pre tax profits rising from £120 million last year, to £210 million this year ... 

And this complaint about having to provide a high level of affordable homes: you sure that was accurate advice? Compared to similar schemes in the borough, for which land was not given away in a Poundland deal?

Anyway, Mrs Angry, you are asking, what was the outcome of this letter, and the advice given? 

It was as follows:

Oh well. And of course although we do not know what was said here, we also do not know what else we do not know, in terms of withheld memos, notes, emails, phone calls, minutes, and briefs, do we?

Eric Pickles is awfully keen on transparency in the Town Hall, of course -but his own department is able to wriggle free of this requirement when it suits. 

Well, let's see about that, shall we? 

The exemption from the FOI request being cited is on the grounds that they may withhold the information if the public interest in doing so outweighs the public interest in disclosing it. 

Quite clearly this excuse is utterly spurious, and the real reason for not releasing the material is political sensitivity. 

This is simply unacceptable, and the information must be put in the public domain, so that we can see exactly why and how the residents of the West Hendon estate came to be cheated and betrayed in the course of this development. 

This is a scheme that has become a perfect example of the lie that is 'regeneration', the worst illustration of the many ways in which Conservative housing policy, and the mythology of localism, are failing the ordinary people of this borough, this city, this country, in so many communities: from Broken Barnet, to Broken Britain - it's a long journey, and a desperate ending, for all of us.


Anonymous said...

And it looks like what happens at West Hendon today will happen at Brent Cross tomorrow. On an even bigger scale.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mrs Angry,
Thank you for informing me on how much I have not been informed on about what is happening in my borough, in my name and with my council tax payments.
At a time when I'm being told my local library must close for the want of £3m, why wasn't I told that the council was colluding with national government to flog an asset worth £12m for £3 pounds? Like you Mrs Angry my maths isn't so great but it looks to me that this is adding up to a scandal.
The problem is what can I do about this - a mere resident against the powerful forces of a secretive council and government department?

Mrs Angry said...

Well, Anon: I suggest you write to Eric Pickles and ask him how this deal represents good value for the taxpayers of Broken Barnet, and how such a deal, which effectively disempowered the local community in the process of consultation over their future, is compliant with the ethos of localism.

You might also write a letter to your local paper and inform other residents and taxpayers: and remember this when you go to vote in May.

And ask Richard Cornelius why he lectures us all about austerity and yet disposes of our assets with such gleeful abandon, instead of securing money for alternative housing schemes for those in real need. Except of course we already know the answer: they simply do not want to invest in social housing, on principle.

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