MEMBERS of Oxford City Council have criticised their own housing policy after plans for the redevelopment of a Cowley shopping centre were approved with just a fifth of new homes being affordable – despite making £9m profit.

In a bid to tackle the city’s growing housing crisis, Oxford City Council’s housing policy states that half of all properties in new developments must be affordable homes.

However, that policy collapsed in the case of the £60m Templars Square redevelopment in Cowley, which was approved with just 23 per cent of affordable homes earlier this month.

Developers NewRiver argued that their scheme, which will net them some £9m in profit, would be ‘unviable’ if they stumped up any more.

Councillors and campaign groups have since called for a complete rethink and a toughening of council policy in the wake of a number of other projects where developers have argued ‘viability’ to secure lower numbers of affordable houses.

East Oxford councillor Dick Wolffe said: “It is a tussle between developers, and the council should be doing more.

"If the council really wants a development and the developer says it is not costed, then we will crack first.

“It’s a stand-off and our officers give in far too easily. They should have driven a harder bargain.”

Ahead of the planning meeting, council officers had sided with developers who said the project would not be viable with more affordable houses and recommended it be approved.

At the meeting on July 5, city councillor John Tanner, who also voted against the plans, said the number of affordable homes was not good enough.

He told fellow members: “We have a clear policy on social housing that it should be 50 per cent. This drives a coach and horses through that.

“If we agree to this, this will be quoted against the council. Cowley can do better than this.”

Oxford was named as the least affordable place to live in the country in a report by Lloyds Bank earlier this year. Land Registry data puts the average house price in Oxford at £408,448.

Councillors introduced the affordable housing policy in September 2013 to tackle the growing housing crisis.

Mr Wolffe added: “Affordable housing and viability is a bit of a dark art. It is obscure to me the process by which developers work out if something is viable or not.

“They will always say it is not viable because they don’t want to build social housing, which is why we have a housing crisis.

“They don’t want to build social housing because it doesn’t make them any money.

“The policy is being looked at again in the new Local Plan. There is a major rethink going on but what I don’t see is a major rethink of the viability test.”

Other developments in Oxford have also seen the city council cave in to developers who insist projects would be unviable if affordable housing targets are forced.

At the Westgate Centre development no affordable housing has been included, and at Barton Park in north east Oxford the city council again backed down on its pledge to ensure 50 per cent of properties were affordable homes, agreeing to a figure of 40 per cent instead.

Carol Stavris from Oxford Housing Crisis said that in the case of the Templars Square development, using viability to dodge affordable housing commitments ‘shows up the reality of the unequal nature of planning negotiations.’

She said: “The present Government has a developer-friendly attitude to planning applications which disadvantages and prejudices the decision-making process for councils.

“We would have expected the council to have argued for a higher percentage of affordable homes than 23 per cent given the profit prediction declared.

“Councils are the only bodies which could build truly affordable homes on a large enough scale to mitigate the crisis in Oxford and elsewhere.”

Defending the policy, meanwhile, council leader Bob Price said that the current system was ‘entirely appropriate’.

He said: “The National Planning Policy Framework allows for variations based on viability considerations, and in mixed commercial and residential developments such as Templars Square, these are quite normal.

“The additional infrastructure elements in such schemes will inevitably affect viability.”

City councillor for Cowley, David Henwood, said that only determining applications based on social housing ratios would be ‘a blinkered approach.’

He said: “With Templars Square, housing makes up just one element of the application, which also consist of road improvements, cycle lanes and cycle storage, pavements being turned into promenades and improved shopping facilities.

“The Westgate shopping centre provided no social housing, but will regenerate the centre of Oxford for generations to come.

“Retrospectively, few would now disagree this wasn’t the right decision at the time. Indeed many share the vision that Westgate and Cowley centre are much needed primary district areas in need of regeneration."