Revised planning documents for the redevelopment of Skipton House have been submitted to Southwark Council. Our previous blog - ‘Another Tower of Shame (with a cinema)’ - detailed how developers L&R were offering zero affordable housing, but proposed throwing in an art house cinema by way of compensation. L&R’s revised application notches up the affordable housing ‘offer’, but only from the non-existent to the pathetic - L&R now propose a miserable 15% of a reduced total of 408 homes.

skipton house cgi CGI of proposed Skipton House redevelopment

Affordable housing: on-site comes first

When the Greater London Authority (GLA) was consulted on L&R’s original application, it noted that there was no quantified affordable housing on offer and reminded both Southwark and L&R that ‘the applicant is to prioritise on-site delivery as a first principle’ (GLA Stage 1 referral 29). L&R, though, are not having this; they don’t want their site blemished with affordable housing - it must be either off-site or met by an in-lieu payment. In L&R’s own lofty words, ‘the precise mechanisms for securing this approach, and the agreed quantum of affordable housing continue to be discussed with Southwark Council’; they add that a ‘search has been undertaken to find appropriate sites for off-site provision of affordable housing and this is being discussed with Southwark Council’ (Planning statement addendum 4.39, 4.38).

L&R’s pitiful affordable housing offer is justified with the self-serving arguments that we reported in our last blog, chiefly that on-site affordable housing will make the development unviable. They also add for good measure that more affordable homes can be built more cheaply elsewhere. This may well be true, but it ignores the fact that 35% affordable housing has already been established by Southwark’s own viability assessments for the Elephant as viable and is the minimum requirement, not the ‘target’ as L&R claim. So it would logically follow that building it in a cheaper area should get us more than 35%. Why then, are L&R offering just 15%? Off-site affordable housing should provide more, not less.

Financially challenged

Inevitably L&R have submitted a financial viability assessment (FVA) to substantiate their case. We requested the assessment, but the Council still hasn’t provided either the FVA or its update, despite trumpeting the adoption of a new policy to make FVAs public. We therefore don’t know what the proposed scheme profits are or the critical benchmark value that determines viability. However, L&R emphasise in their application that the current Skipton House is ‘a profitable office asset’ with ‘substantial existing use value’ (Revised affordable housing statement 3.7). So we can conclude that the viability benchmark will be high, making it that much easier to demonstrate an unviable scheme and thus dump affordable housing.

Homeless - not wanted here

As well as depriving the Elephant of much needed affordable housing, L&R are intending to demolish a 35-bed homeless hostel on Keyworth St owned by Southwark Council. The (council-owned) Keyworth Homeless Hostel - up for demolition

L&R acknowledge that they risk a planning refusal should a homeless hostel be lost ‘where it meets an identified local housing need’ but Southwark comes to their rescue, with the council reportedly ‘prepared in principle to relocate the Hostel elsewhere within the borough to continue to meet an identified local housing need’ (Planning Statement 8.10-8.12). We can only conclude from this that Southwark believes that either we don’t have a local homelessness problem at the Elephant, or that the need can be met by a hostel elsewhere in the borough. Council housing data shows a staggering 92% increase in homelessness applications last year.

Southwark Key Housing Data Oct 2015

Culture rules, housing suffers

There is no mention of any payments or compensation to Southwark for the loss of the hostel and the Council seems happy to help L&R factor out affordable housing from the scheme and demolish homeless hostels. Indeed, the stated priority of both parties is to establish the Elephant as part of a ‘cultural triangle’, along with the South Bank and Borough & Bankside (Cultural Statement 5.10), rather than to build affordable housing. This trade-off between affordable housing and culture is made clear in the Planning Statement addendum 2.18 as is Southwark’s co-operation with L&R in shaping its proposal. (Planning statement addendum 1.3)

Notwithstanding L&R’s cultural ambitions, the 500 seat cinema has been replaced with a 350 seat performance venue in the revised application, with a wish list of uses (Planning statement 4.12-4.15) - the consequent reduction in size is what allows the increase of affordable housing from 0% to 15%, according to L&R.

Statutory objectors object

But L&R’s cultural vision is not shared by several statutory consultees. These bodies must be consulted about the application and are thought to be best qualified to judge its merits, including its cultural worth.

The Twentieth Century Society has objected to the development’s over-sized massing and warns that it could “cause harm to the architectural significance” of the neighbouring Goldfinger-designed Metro Central Heights.

The Theatres Trust makes various suggestions and ends its submission by commenting that it “does not consider this venue to be an adequate replacement to the nearby Coronet Theatre’. The Trust adds ‘Any advice issued for the Coronet site should ensure a retained or replacement c.2000 seat theatre and live music venue is provided within that redevelopment, to ensure there is not a reduction in the provision of local cultural offer.’

Historic England have also objected saying that “the proposed tower will have a harmful impact upon the settings of conservation areas and listed buildings” in the local area and views from the Westminster World Heritage site.

Who are L&R?

Our blog post report would not be complete without some account of L&R. In 2012 The Evening Standard reported that the company is owned by “secretive” brothers, Ian and Richard Livingstone, who “have built up a global empire with combined assets worth more than £4 billion”. They bought commercial properties in the early nineties and and made ‘their first big fortune’ in 1993, when they sold their portfolio for £93m. They “registered their master company, Strategic Properties Ltd, on the offshore tax haven of St Kitts and Nevis” (the Standard adds ‘there is no suggestion that they tried to avoid paying British taxes’).

The Telegraph reports that the brothers like to pay themselves hundreds of millions in dividends each year; Companies House data shows that L&R hasn’t paid any UK corporation tax since 2010 (when it paid just £1.9m); we note an office in Panama.

L&R joins the list of other developers at the Elephant with offshore links and we note L&R is also one of the top 100 Tory party donors - as is Delancey’s Jamie Ritblat.

In conclusion…

It seems incredible that Southwark are willing to entertain a planning application from a rich off-shore connected developer, an application that at first didn’t bother to say how much affordable housing it would build and is now using a criticised ‘cultural offer’ as an excuse to provide as little as possible.

The Theatre’s Trust comment shows the obvious way forward. Delancey, the owners and developers of the shopping centre, should be told that the Coronet must be retained and L&R told that they must provide 35% affordable housing on-site and that building a venue a fraction of the Coronet’s size is not an acceptable excuse for not doing so. If this is done then the value of the Elephant as a cultural destination can be maintained and a policy-compliant amount of affordable housing secured.

We have set up our online objections form and encourage people to use it to object to this application. All you need to do is enter your name and email address and your objection will be sent straight to Southwark Council. We have entered suggested wording in the box but please feel free to personalise it by amending or adding to it as you see fit.