Secret parts of a viability report on the level of affordable housing proposed in the North Horsham development have been revealed to the public at last.
Horsham District Council approved Liberty’s plans for 2,750 homes and a new business park on land north of the A264 back in May 2017.
However the application included just 18 per cent true affordable housing, which includes shared ownership and affordable rent, well below the council’s 35 per cent target.
Instead Liberty proposed 30 per cent housing for local needs, 18 of which is affordable housing, with the other 12 per cent made up of private rented housing, discount market homes, and custom build units.
A clawback mechanism, where the council would receive money towards off-site affordable housing if the value of the new homes goes up, is being negotiated.
At the time HDC asked consultants Dixon Searle Partnership (DSP) to review the viability information supplied by Liberty.
However when the report was released key parts were redacted, with councillors forced to sign a confidentiality agreement if they wanted to view an unredacted copy.
Rudgwick resident Paul Kornycky challenged the council on keeping parts of the DSP report secret, but only some redactions were reversed.
After the outline planning application was approved he took the fight to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The ICO has now ruled in his favour and the council has been forced to publish the full unredacted DSP report.
According to Mr Kornycky it backs up arguments that closer to 30 per cent true on-site affordable housing should have been achieved within the North Horsham scheme, and even on figures today at least 25 per cent should have been secured.
He described how it was already clear core figures were significantly out of date, but the true scale was hidden from the public in the redacted parts of the DSP report.
More up to date house selling prices and construction costs showed an increase in development value of £76.5m, which could have helped secure a greater percentage of affordable housing.
Mr Kornycky, who has been heavily involved in campaigning for a replacement Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre, said: “The ICO recently ruled that the DSP report had been wrongly withheld from the public. It reveals that adjustments in excess of mine were indeed proposed by the consultants, but were shunned by HDC.
“It seems like HDC decided a ‘bad deal’ was deemed better than ‘no deal’.”
He added: “HDC should apologise for deliberately withholding information that should have been in the public domain.
“They have arguably drawn the democratic planning system into disrepute by denying both residents and councillors full access to critical information.”
The Horsham Labour Party has already called for resignations at the Tory-controlled council.
A spokesman for Liberty said the company accepted the ICO’s decision, while the council described how viability information and assessments ‘have not normally been publicly disclosed by councils to protect what has long been considered as information supplied by a developer which is commercially confidential’.
When the council received a request to disclose the full DSP report it took the view it ‘fell under what is considered to be commercially confidential information’.
The council said it was not its job to judge what the commercial interests of an applicant might be and would not be expected to have complete or detailed knowledge of them.
A spokesman for HDC said: “The final decision on this particular planning application was made by members at a full council meeting open to the media and public.
“Prior to this, councillors all had access to the complete set of information, including the aspects which were considered commercially sensitive. They also had the ability over a long period to raise any queries or seek further information from the council’s officer team before reaching their decision.
“The viability issues associated with this application are complex and so the council chose to obtain support from one of the leading consultants in the country in such matters, Dixon Searle, who regularly provide expert support on complex planning matters to councils.
“Councillors were also given the opportunity to question them directly on all aspects of the viability report. It is totally incorrect therefore to say that the council acted on any other basis and without seeking experienced and respected external advice.
“Any member of the public, such as Mr Kornycky, is fully entitled to have a different view about any particular matter from the one taken by the council. On this occasion, the council’s approach was fully supported by expert advice. Dixon Searle were engaged to advise the council and to assist officers in taking a robust position in negotiations and their advice achieved exactly what it was intended to.
“The section 106 agreement is being progressed and an additional three per cent affordable housing has now been secured raising the amount from 18 per cent to 21 per cent.
“It also includes a robust mechanism for claw back which will ensure uplift in affordable housing if possible on site in the first instance.”
David Hide, chair of the Horsham Labour Party, said the decision to withhold vital information relating to the viability of the development ‘evidences an astonishing disregard for the concerns about the lack of affordable housing expressed by the residents of Horsham’.
He added: “The decision to withhold this information clearly had a dramatic impact on the level of affordable housing approved by the planning committee.”
He called for resignations in the council and the planning approval to be quashed.
Last week the Horsham Society suggested HDC could follow Brighton and Hove City Council’s example and require full and open disclosure of viability figures when planning applications to do not meet policy requirements.
HDC said it was awaiting updated Government guidance following a housing consultation last year which aimed to make viability assessments ‘simpler quicker and more transparent’.
ICO DECISION REPORT
The Information Commissioner’s Office, which upholds information rights in the public interest, concluded ‘it has not been shown disclosure of the withheld information would result in adverse effects to the legitimate economic interests of the council or Liberty’.
The report said ‘it is not enough that some harm might be caused by disclosure. The commissioner considers it is necessary to establish on the balance of probabilities that some harm would be caused by the disclosure’.
The council argued releasing the information would make it more difficult to attract private investment in the future, but the ICO had not seen evidence ‘this phenomenon has ever happened or is likely to happen’ and is ‘highly sceptical that developers would deny themselves the opportunity to pursue potentially lucractive planning schemes’.
Meanwhile Liberty argued that disclosures would benefit competitors and potential customers, impacting its ability to negotiate and compete in the market.
But the ICO ruled the submissions ‘generic in nature’ without specific information on actual effects.
Responding to claims some information is a ‘trade secret’, the ICO ‘is left with the impression that the council has been content to be steered by Liberty in relation to the information which should be withheld’.
The commissioner added: “This in itself is no bad thing - the commissioner would not expect authorities to have diverse knowledge of the commercial concerns of third parties.
“However, the ultimate responsibility for handling requests rest with public authorities and the commissioner makes it clear in her correspondence what level or detail is required to justify the use of exceptions.”
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