It has been an extraordinary few weeks, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that we will face a long period of recovery, with restrictions on our lives and business continuing in some form for the foreseeable future.
As you will have hopefully seen from our various newsletters and the subsequent media coverage, we have been working hard to formulate policy responses to support Central London’s economy in both the short and long term.
Working in partnership with our sister body the CPA as the London Property Alliance, we have engaged closely with national, London and local government from the onset. In Westminster we have seen the City Council, under the relatively new leadership of Cllr Rachael Robathan, swing into action on an unprecedented scale to support residents and businesses alike.
Key to their success has been partnership with both businesses and community groups. From the Berkeley Hotel preparing 1,500 meals a week for vulnerable people, to the 2,500 individual volunteers that have signed up to help locally through Westminster Connects, and many other acts of generosity too numerous to list.
The property industry has also played a key role in this crisis, providing accommodation for key workers and logistics and storage space for the NHS. This is public private partnership at its best, working together in the best interests of all of us.
It is now more important than ever that collaboration continues as we tentatively start to look forward to rebuilding the economy, with the property industry playing a critical role in supporting the delivery of jobs and homes.
Our recommendations to Government Ministers, Westminster City Council and the Mayor have covered both planning and financial flexibility. Our recommendations range from increasing the business rates waiver to include the many London ratepayers currently excluded, to extending planning permissions to help safeguard future development.
We have called for the financial sector to show the same flexibility to property owners, as they are rightly being called on to provide for tenants, and have asked Government for the ability to reopen discussions on previously consented schemes found no longer viable.
This last point has been misunderstood in some quarters and I want to publicly reaffirm that the WPA unequivocally supports development-funded affordable housing, alongside publicly funded homes.
Our express intention is to help safeguard development and the subsequent planning contributions that flow from it. We all accept that the provision of affordable housing, particularly for the key workers who are so important to society, needs to be increased.
But the economic reality has changed, and conditions for the foreseeable future means bringing forward schemes will be challenging in some instances.
If they are not built then clearly the affordable housing and other positive planning contributions, in the form of CIL and s106 payments, supporting communities and local services, will not be delivered either.
We therefore have to work together in the same spirit of public private partnership being shown now, to help address this. Options to enable ‘at risk’ schemes to proceed could include permitting adjustments to their configuration and density, without wherever possible, compromising affordable housing provision or other community benefits.
The mechanism for allowing such dialogue does not necessarily need to be the resurrection of a previously used planning tool, as we originally proposed. What is important is the ability for the public and private sectors to work collaboratively to help rebuild the economy, and generate the homes and jobs the capital needs.
I look forward to working on behalf of WPA members, alongside our highly committed and engaged Board and Executive, with Westminster City Council and all our stakeholders, as we seek to rebuild Westminster’s economy, and deliver the economic growth and affordable housing London urgently needs.
It will not be easy, and we may not all agree on every point. But working in partnership is the only way through this crisis.
I welcome feedback from members on our campaigns, and in the coming weeks we will be conducting our own survey to better determine the challenges you are facing.
In the meantime thank you for your ongoing support, and do keep safe and well.
Olivia Harris, Chair, Westminster Property Association