Council passes plans to turn Havering car parks into homes

Havering Council has greenlit plans to eventually convert car parks into housing after councillors objected to logistics.

The cash-strapped council will sell six bits of land to its own holding company, Mercury Holdings Ltd, which would then seek planning permission for the sites. In the meantime, Mercury would lease the land back to the council at a very low, or “peppercorn,” rate.

Despite protests from councillors that it was “absolute madness,” Havering’s cabinet agreed to push ahead with converting the car parks, primarily in Hornchurch and Romford, at a meeting on Wednesday May 15.

It is expected to bring in almost £9million for the authority, which is keen to make money as quickly as possible after accepting a £54m loan from central government in February.

The scheme had been initially approved on April 22 – in line with the council’s agreed ‘capital strategy’ – but a coalition of Conservative and Labour councillors called the decision in for scrutiny on Tuesday May 7.

Plans were put forward to build six three-bedroom homes on Keswick Avenue car park in late April, shortly after the scheme was first agreed, but councillors criticised the lack of a wider business plan.

At Wednesday’s meeting,Tory leader Keith Prince said it made the scheme “difficult to understand,” with fellow Conservative David Taylor having previously argued the council should not transfer funds without knowing how much it stands to profit.

Kathy Freeman, Havering’s chief financial officer, maintained it cannot produce a breakdown for each site until planning permission has been secured, which some councillors said was “putting the cart before the horse”.

Alongside Keswick Avenue, the council has also earmarked Como Street car park in Romford; Dorrington Gardens in Hornchurch, Angel Way in Romford, Century Youth House in Albert Road, Romford and land off Priory Road in Romford.

Como Street has been selected for a “significant” project, but details remain under wraps.

After the cabinet voted to dismiss their concerns, council leader Ray Morgon reassured members that plans for each site would be subject to their own rounds of scrutiny in the future.

Additionally, financially sensitive breakdowns have been produced for each site, but they are exempt from the public.

Cllr Morgon added that anything more in-depth was “impractical at this stage”.

Councillors had also attacked the complicated-sounding nature of the scheme, which would involve transferring the sites to Mercury Holdings in exchange for equity in the company.

During a lengthy debate, Cllr Prince said he “cannot understand the madness of what we’re doing”.

He called it “farcical,” saying the council was simply moving its assets around “to look like something’s happening,” but Kathy argued the authority could stand to profit.

The council would be given a capital receipt of around £8.69m, valuable for companies or enterprises saddled with debt. It aims to raise £20m in receipts by 31st March 2025 – or as close to then as possible – and has so far raised £8.75m.

Once the council has a capital receipt, reflecting the value of the land, it may later profit from an overage clause. An overage clause, or ‘clawback,’ can allow a seller to benefit if the value of the land increases after a sale.

After Cllr Prince suggested the council could also profit now by creating a public bidding war, she said the revenue would be greater further down the line.

Despite the loss of £190,000 in annual revenue from the car parks, council officials are confident a housing scheme would balance out.

The call-in was dismissed by the majority of cabinet members. Had it been approved, the scheme would not go ahead.

Sebastian Mann

Local democracy reporter

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