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Blackout: Council redacts Liddell Road viability report

Camden council claims that it cannot reveal the costings and valuations behind its proposal for Liddell Road “in accordance with the legal advice we have received.”

This led to a farcical response to a Freedom of Information request made by former Conservative council candidate Andrew Parkinson. Andrew had asked to see the Liddell Road viability report, which many locals are keen to look at in order to understand how the council has come up with a scheme that involves an 11-storey tower block, a mere 4% affordable housing and a sizeable surplus.

Copyright issues on FOI responses are a bit confusing, so to be on the safe side, I’ve only published the appendices of the report. Appendix A is the Financial Appraisal and Appendix B is the Cost Plan.

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All the numbers in the report – both in the body and the appendices have been redacted.

Andrew Parkinson said, “I personally don’t think its acceptable for the Council to entirely redact the figures in the report.”

James Earl, chairman of the Neighbourhood Development Forum, said:

“We welcome the publication of the Viability Report, which we believe should have been published with all the other documents relating to the planning application. However, the decision to redact every figure in the report is ridiculous and is an insult to the local community. This is not a private development – it is a scheme proposed by Camden Council which involves public land and public money. Local residents have a right to know about the financial position on which the proposed development is based.”

From the outset, Camden has been reluctant to show its workings. Promises to publish its survey on Liddell Road employment numbers evaporated over time, despite the council’s figures differing substantially from those cited by the businesses on the estate who were being forced to relocate.

Stephen Nathan, QC, chairman of local residents’ association WHGARA, said of the redacted report “This is absurd. Camden keep on forgetting that they are acting as a statutory planning authority.”

This latest move will do little to persuade sceptical locals that West Hampstead is getting the best deal here. A recent survey by the Neighbourhood Development Forum revealed that the broad concept for the land is popular, but the details – specifically the tall tower block and the lack of affordable housing – are far more contentious.

  • Theo Blackwell

    But the report isn’t a ‘blackout’ and this story gives a misleading view of the assessment. To my knowledge at no point did West Hampstead Life attempt to contact me/Phil/councillors on this to ask about it or to answer your confusion over copyright (??) to this FoI so you could precis it and write a balanced story for local people.

    I suppose the temptation to post pages of redacted figures without comeback was too irresistible!

    The actual document – which is an independent report – compares estimated land values for the residential and employment space proposed with costs of delivering the school and other community benefits. It explains that as there will be no land value ‘profit’ generated through the sale of the land for residential development, in policy terms the residential enables development of the other public goods.

    The report demonstrates the proposed scheme generates a value broadly in line with the costs of delivering the new school building and a £3m contribution to the CIP schools budget. It also shows that given the costs of the education benefits, the inclusion of additional affordable housing over and above the 4 affordable housing units in the proposed scheme and wider S106 contributions would not be viable.

    In short, after the massive cuts to schools capital budgets in 2010 the council is doing its best to fund a school here.

    If, following the extensive consultation, some people like the NPF don’t like the way it looks, or think its too big, they will have their chance to say so again at the planning committee. That is their right and always has been. For some others, who disagreed even with the initial decision – they may be other motives at play, it is not for me to speculate to you what they might be.

    As the QC would know, in some cases we have to balance the public interest in ensuring transparency against the need to protect commercial sensitivity. Like other councils the Council’s standard approach for applications is to disclose viability reports but with commercially sensitive information deleted. It doesn’t mean it isn’t scrutinised. Personally I too favour more transparency, and have done a lot to make this happen at the Town Hall, but I also need to be careful if there are consequences to the public purse now or in the future.

    • Hi Theo,

      Thank you once again for taking the time to respond. It’s genuinely appreciated.

      It’s a fair cop… In this instance, I confess that the temptation to highlight to readers the extent of the redaction was too great, though not because I was trying to avoid any comeback. Even if I had spoken to you or one of your colleagues, I would still have published this. After all, we know what you would say – you’ve been saying it for quite some time. But what I think people want to see – certainly what I’d like to see – are the cold hard numbers.

      The story was therefore less about the findings of the viability report, and more about the redaction. That’s newsworthy in my book. I could have been more balanced and pointed out that only about 40% of the report was redacted. The 40% that everyone wanted to see. Yes, it’s a bit of a stunt, but it makes the point that even when forced to reveal more information (Camden could, after all, have released the report without an FOI request – it’s not like no-one’s ever asked), the council is still able to keep to itself the information people want to know – that’s the people who’ll be affected directly by this development.

      Unfortunately, by redacting every single financial number in the document – literally every single one – it is hard to accept that Camden has any interest whatsoever in transparency. This is all public money and while there will of course be areas where commercial sensitivity must be balanced against public interest; there’s no sign of balance here. It looks like a unilateral decision to take all the numbers out without thinking about it.

      The problem, and it’s been raised by locals of all political stripes and none, is that we don’t have ANY transparency on these numbers. The report didn’t allow us to see what the cost of building the school was. Why is that commercially sensitive? Why are Camden’s design and planning fees commercially sensitive? Why is the cost of refurbing Kingsgate School commercially sensitive (and by the way, is that money coming from the £3m or from somewhere else?)? Why is it commercially sensitive to know the basis on which land values are assessed, or on which the value of the flats would be assessed?

      The report does indeed say there will be no land value profit generated through the sale of the land for residential development. We’ve been told this from the outset, despite the development changing over time: the additional central govt. funding, the quota of affordable homes, the number of overall units. Yet we have no transparency on how the development continues to be cost neutral even as these changes are made.

      I accept that I didn’t live up to the high ethical standards you rightly expect of me by not contacting any of you for comment. This was more to do with time than anything else, but frankly we all know what Camden will say – the residential development enables the school and the surplus goes into projects elsewhere in the borough. We get it. We’d just like more detail. Is that really unreasonable? We’ve been asking for more detail on aspects of this scheme for more than a year – we never did see that employment survey.

      I do have a couple of questions for you:
      Why is this planning application is in two parts when building the school is contingent on the rest of the development? If the school application is passed, how could the rest of the development realistically be rejected or even amended if the costings are so tight?

      Why did Camden planners reject a 7-storey building on Iverson Road which, “by virtue of its height, mass and scale would result in an overdominant form of development causing harm to the streetscene and negatively impacting on long views, contrary to policies CS14 (Promoting high quality places and conserving heritage)”, yet are willing to push an 11-storey building on elevated ground just a few hundred yards away?

      What I found most interesting about the NDF survey on Liddell Road was that a sizeable majority of people support the principle of a school, housing and employment space on this site – and yet oppose the detail so strongly that it suggests the council needs to work much harder to persuade them of the merits – both social and economic. Publishing this report could have gone a long way to doing that, but instead the black pen came out and we’re left with assertions but no evidence.

      You are right to expect me to try and get both sides of the story. I think West Hampstead residents are also entitled to expect Camden to be as open and transparent as it can possibly be about a public spending programme that will have a major impact on the local community.

      I accept and respect that you are personally in favour of transparency. Perhaps this would be a good opportunity to revisit that legal advice and see whether the balance of public interest and commercial sensitivity might be tipped back slightly in favour of the former. I promise that I would report that in just as much detail.

      • Theo Blackwell

        Thanks for your response. I can totally understand the desire to see everything but there are a number of factors to weigh up. My understanding that if all these figures were published at this stage, there is a real risk that future bidders for the land and construction contracts could use these estimates to their advantage. But the questions you ask are good ones so I will take them back.

        Btw the report wasn’t secret, the appraisal will be reported to the Committee (the independent assessment is published with the planning officer’s report in a redacted form for the Committee’s considerations). The FoI just asked for something which was going to be in the public domain at the same time as other information.

  • West Hampstead NDF

    Hi Theo,

    It seems you’ve had your right to reply, so no problem there!

    The issue has always been that the Council has made much of the viability issue, as again you do, to say we can’t have low rise buildings or a reasonable amount of affordable housing. That’s fine as far as it goes, but given that taxpayer’s money (including the central government grant of £6.7 million) and public land is involved – the local community, quite rightly, expects you to be open and honest on these matters. Instead we have a Council that appears to be behaving like the worst kind of private developer – and seeks to hide behind legal advice. There is no legal barrier that I’m aware of that would prevent the the full publication of the viability report.

    As is seen in the results of the NDF’s survey on Liddell Road (which can be viewed on our website), most people aren’t opposed to the redevelopment in principle – including the provision of the school, housing and employment space. However, 80% think there is too little affordable housing and 87% oppose the tower block. Given that the Council makes much of its commitment to affordable housing, its approach on this site makes no sense. Building heights are also a really important issue in our community (read our Neighbourhood Plan!) – and I recall you opposing a proposal for a 9 storey building in your ward, so you clearly echo these concerns.

    Finally, to imply that everyone who is questioning or opposing this scheme is doing so because of their political affiliations is clearly wrong and is a serious misrepresentation of the views of our community. Party politics may be everything to you, but to most people it’s irrelevant!

    James (Chair, NDF)