Labour leadership contender Jess Phillips MP’s office is funded by a property developer criticised for not including enough affordable housing in his tower blocks.
Jess Phillips's register of financial interests from September lists a donation totalling £6,000 from Court Consultants, paid in monthly instalments until next July. Phillips says the money is “to fund constituency campaigning”.
Court Consultants is controlled by Birmingham property developer Anthony McCourt. He is a longstanding financial backer of Jess Phillips. In 2017, Anthony McCourt gave £3,000 to Philips to help with the running of her local Labour party.
Since successive governments cut the ability of local authorities to build social housing, the main way they get any affordable housing is through the planning process. Councils try to oblige property developers to build some affordable housing in their new buildings in return for planning permission. It’s not a very strong way of getting affordable housing, but recent developments involving Antony McCourt failed to meet even these limited attempts by councils to increase the amount lower-cost housing.
McCourt runs his developments through his other company, Court Collaboration. Recent Court Collaboration schemes have also been criticised for not containing enough affordable housing.
Court Collaboration is planning two tower blocks in Saxton Lane, Leeds, containing around 350 “build to rent” apartments. Its planning application says the developer “cannot meet the council’s full affordable housing requirement”.
Court Collaboration said that meeting the council target of having 7 percent of the flats at “affordable” rents would mean they would fall short of "their target profit level of 8 percent". The developer would not even agree to a compromise 5 percent affordable target, so the council agreed to just 15 of the new homes – or 4.23 percent – being affordable.
McCourt does personally very well from his “target profit level”. According to their latest company accounts, Court Collaborations made £1.1 million profit in 2019. The firm paid £600,000 in dividends. McCourt owns 70 percent of the shares, which suggests he took £420,000 out of this business into his own pocket in 2019.
Court Collaborations are also proposing Birmingham’s “One Eastside” development, which the developer says will be “Birmingham’s tallest skyscraper”. It is a luxury development with features like “excellent communal facilities including gym with spin and yoga room, residence lounge, café, cinema room and flexible working & meeting space”.
The development is being sold to investors on the basis of high and raising rents. They are told that “strong rental yields [are] expected“. Court Collaborations also say that “average asking rents in Birmingham have increased by 16 per cent since 2014” – boasting about this to potential landlords, even though it’s a bad thing for renters.
However, just 20 out of 667 apartments – or 3 percent – will be “affordable”. Labour councillors in Birmingham have criticised the scheme’s lack of affordable housing. One told the Birmingham Mail that it is “staggering”. Another said that shortage of affordable housing in the development was “not just pathetic; it’s appalling”.
The councillor, noting the large amount of marble on the “luxury” skyscraper, argued that “perhaps a little less marble and a few more affordable flats would be nice". The development was approved in December 2019 anyway.
Court Collaborations are also working on Stone Yard, a “£350 million build-to-rent scheme" in Digbeth, Birmingham.
Property developers like Anthony McCourt backing Labour MPs is not unheard of, but it is unusual. Far more big developers back the Tories. The Stone Yard scheme is a collaboration with one such Tory backer: Tony Gallagher, whose firm gave the Tories £500,000 last November to help fund Boris Johnson's election campaign. Gallagher personally hosted David Cameron's 50th birthday party at his mansion in Oxfordshire.
The £220 million scheme includes no affordable housing on-site at all, but the developers will make a “£1,250,000 contribution towards the provision of off-site affordable housing”.
There is a campaign against the Stone Yard development, both because of worries about affordable housing and fears that the luxury development will change the character of the area. Digbeth is a formerly industrial suburb which has been redeveloped into a “bohemian” district of independent shops, bars and cafes around a former custard factory.
The “Digbeth Deserves Better” campaign want to stop McCourt’s huge skyscraper. A spokesperson for the campaign told VICE: "Digbeth is a peculiar, innovative and vibrant part of the world that deserves so much better than death by soulless development.”
They added that the plans for a 30 story tower block “trample over the interest of the local community and will quite literally overshadow the residents and businesses that make this historic neighbourhood what it is today”.
Campaigners, involving many local resdients and business owners objected to the scheme because “nobody here wants a row of shiny 'cookie-cutter' skyscrapers that suck the life out of Digbeth and block out the sun”.
They also said: “Serious questions should be raised over the affordable housing outline.”
VICE asked Jess Phillips's campaign if her donations from McCourt and his company came from somebody who shared Labour's values on housing, and whether they gave him any influence over her position.
A spokesperson said: “We are not commenting on individual donations. Jess’ campaign is aiming to raise a large portion of our funds from small individual donations from the public and we are very grateful to everyone who has donated so far through our crowdfunder. Of course no donation gives an individual any say or influence over policy positions or the direction of the campaign.”
They added: “Jess’ campaign is based on speaking truth and being honest about what needs to happen in our party and our country. She will continue to do this without fear or favour.”
Anthony McCourt did not respond to VICE's request for comment.