After months of stalling Westminster City Council has finally released a secret report explaining the finances behind plans for a major development of luxury flats by a private company on land owned by the council.

Hoarding around building site.
Trying to hide something. Planning permission was given by Westminster City Council for 105 flats but no social housing after the developer successfully argued they couldn’t afford it.

In June 2015 a committee headed by councillor Robert Davis approved plans for a controversial development of 105 flats in three tower blocks but which included no social housing on a site at 87-125 Cleveland Street.

The freehold of the site is owned by Westminster City Council which assigned a lease to Soho Data Holdings.

Dukelease Properties which is developing the site successfully argued that the project would not be financially viable to include on-site social housing and offered a payment in lieu of only £4,629,000 — much less than the £15,785,000 calculated by planning officers.

Roger Allen of Holcroft Court Residents Association complained to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) after the City Council refused his request to see a full copy of a viability report.

In March this year the ICO upheld the complaint and required the council to disclose all the withheld information.

In making the decision the commissioner recognised the council’s arguments to withhold the information on grounds of commercial confidentiality, but said that this was outweighed by the public interest in disclosing the information.

“The Council has argued that organisations would be reluctant to provide commercially sensitive information to the Council if they could not be assured of the confidentiality of that information,” wrote the commissioner.

“However, the Commissioner considers that it would be unlikely that these organisations would not engage at all with Councils on major development opportunities. The suggestion that disclosure might lead developers in future to choose not to work with the Council does not seem realistic to the Commissioner. As developers have an incentive to make the most persuasive case available to them in relation to proposed development sites, it is difficult to fathom how developers could make a convincing argument regarding the viability of such developments without using such quantified information.”

The Information Commissioner stated that affordable housing “is a local issue of such importance” and so is the public’s understanding of viability reports.

However, Westminster City Council refused to release the report and appealed to the Information Tribunal to overturn the decision. Emails seen by Fitzrovia News indicate that the council’s deputy leader councillor Robert Davis took the decision to appeal the ICO’s ruling.

Roger Allen told Fitzrovia News: “Robert Davis has chosen to waste tax payers’ money on legal fees defending a viability report that the ICO has described as being ‘in the public interest’ to disclose.”

On 1 June Westminster Council finally backed down and made public the report but said it had done so because the property developer had agreed to this and denied it had wasted public money.

In a statement to Fitzrovia News a spokesperson for Westminster Council said:

“The developer has voluntarily agreed to release the viability assessment as, in this instance, they do not object to their commercially sensitive business proposals being disclosed. Therefore the ICO’s ruling is no longer relevant and absolutely no public money has been spent on this issue.

“The release of such information needs to be done with all commercial sensitivities taken into account, ensuring that private developers are not discouraged from investing in Westminster through enforced publication of their financial information.”

Now the report is in the public domain it will have to be analysed and made sense of, something we will report upon in due course.

Neighbouring residents are also wondering why demolition work on the site has stopped. Westminster Council told Fitzrovia News:

“The building works on the site have ceased as the applicant has submitted a revised plan to the council. We cannot comment further on this without prejudicing any future decision on this amended application.”

The site is well know for the Banksy mural on the south wall of the building. Residents have asked what is happening to it.

“The protection of the Banksy mural at the site is a matter for the applicant, but we would encourage them to pay all due care attention to the artwork,” said Westminster Council.

However, according to a report to councillors the Banksy artwork is owned by the council.

The Banksy art on the southern wall of the premises remains the property of WCC. Any works to the premises which may affect the integrity of this art may not be commenced until such time as the art has been removed by WCC at their cost and in a reasonable timeframe. If the Banksy is required to be retained on site as part of the planning obligations for the new development, then WCC will comply with this requirement but ownership of the Banksy will not transfer to the owner of the property.

Environmental Information Regulations 2004: Decision notice FS50587175 16 March 2016 (pdf).

Westminster City Council, Assessment for Financial Viability, Cleveland Street (pdf).