Camden’s ‘North Sea oil’ land and property deals to be investigated
Panel of backbenchers set up to look into performance of flagship Communiy Investment Programme
17 October, 2019 — By Richard Osley
Conservative councillor Andrew Parkinson will chair the review
LABOUR council chiefs have been left shocked after an investigation was launched into Camden’s flagship policy of playing the property market to raise money for homes and schools.
A panel of backbenchers has been asked to probe whether a series of deals known as the Community Investment Programme (CIP)_ made sense.
The programme was dubbed the “North Sea Oil” strategy by Labour’s own finance chiefs when it was launched nearly 10 years ago with those behind it suggesting that Camden would tap into the council’s high-value portfolio of land and property as funding options became constrained by the government’s austerity budgets.
A host of regeneration projects across the borough have since been started with Camden allowing some private homes to be built on sites in order to pay for new council housing, “living rent” homes and school buildings.
Labour’s leadership believe Camden should be congratulated for its ambition and delivery of new homes, but friction has been bubbling under the surface of the ruling group.
And some left-wingers are not opposed to the new inquiry because of their reservations about the way private operators have been invited to use public land – their ideal would be direct investment in building council houses from a future Labour government.
Green councillor Sian Berry, over the years, has also questioned why the programme was not producing even more council homes.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Conservatives have pushed for the panel to be set up after repeatedly claiming Camden has failed to meet its targets and has lost out financially.
The tension came to a head on Thursday when the Resources and Performance Scrutiny Committee – a cross-party panel charged with monitoring council policies – set up the new investigation.
It could mean weeks of meetings where decisions are challenged in the open by a panel headed by Conservative councillor Andrew Parkinson and whose members will include Thomas Gardiner and Ranjit Singh.
How risk and speculation on London’s expensive property market – private operators generally want to sell their new flats at a high price – has been affected by a recent downturn in prices is likely to be scrutinised.
While it will not have the power to change council policy, the panel will be expected to deliver a list of recommendations over how the programme could perform better.
Conservative leader, Councillor Oliver Cooper, said: “It’s right for Camden to build more council homes on the land that it owns but it’s not clear at all that the council knows how to do it. “In each of the last five years, receipts from the CIP have averaged £67million less than forecast. That’s £67m a year not available for investment in housing and community facilities.”
He added:“CIP homes cost more to build than any other council houses in the country, yet residents from Highgate to King’s Cross have still lived through horror stories about poor quality. We shouldn’t be spending more than anywhere else just to build uninhabitable homes.”
Cllr Berry, who is also the Green Party’s national co-leader, said Camden should look at “a new ability to borrow” and gauge support for individual schemes through estate ballots.
“The starting point is full and unspun data, and the council must provide this to the panel at a minimum,” she said. L
abour leaders, reacting with incredulity this week that the scheme has faced criticism, view the attacks on the CIP as criticism of attempts to build council housing at a scale which other local authorities have been unable to match.
Regeneration chief Danny Beales
Regeneration chief, Councillor Danny Beales, this week challenged opponents to come up with an alternative way to invest in council homes and schools.
He said: “Despite a decade of Tory austerity and cuts to funding for affordable house building, Camden has built over 350 new council homes – the first in a generation. “We have further plans in train to deliver more than 1,100 council homes.”
He said that the CIP had been the “centrepiece” of Labour’s 2018 council election manifesto, which saw a record number of the party’s candidates elected.
Cllr Beales added: “I am always happy to debate ideas for building housing as well as ensuring we also build the schools and community facilities the borough needs. But so far the local Tories have suggested nothing other than private sector joint ventures and even slowing down the rate at which we build these much-needed new homes. “If they are serious, after many years of sniping, it is now up to the opposition not just to oppose, but to set out genuine, workable and funded plans that can deliver more.”
Luxury flats tower in Somers Town
ONE of the most controversial projects in Camden’s Community Investment Programme collection of schemes has been taken over by partners in the Far East looking to capitalise on a tower of luxury flats.
How the new tower will look
The council has levered in investment for new facilities for Edith Neville Primary School, whose site had fallen into disrepair, and nearly 40 new council homes by allowing a development which will dramatically change the skyline in Somers Town.
Hong Kong-based investment company Prime Pacific and the ED Group Holding, based in the UK and Europe, have “formed a strategic joint venture” to work on residential developments in London and have exchanged contracts on the 22-storey tower project.
It will feature 54 private apartments which are already being promoted with the promise of panoramic views and its proximity to the railwaylands regeneration in King’s Cross site.
This week the veteran housing campaigner Fran Heron, in an opinion piece published in the New Journal, said: “Not one person I know was opposed to the vitally needed school replacement – those more informed rejected the robbing of community assets to do so and several other options were available that would not have had the devastating impacts we face.”
Attempts to fight the tower development in the High Court were unsuccessful. Regeneration chief, Labour councillor Danny Beales, said the CIP schemes were the only way to secure investment at a time when government funding had been scrapped.
“We could not have put this forward, if we were prepared to scrap the new school or 38 council homes,” he said.
Other CIP schemes, some of which have won architectural awards, include the redevelopment of the Maiden Lane Estate, the new homes at Cherry Court in Gospel Oak and the Bourne Estate in Holborn, and the overhaul of former council offices in West End Lane.