Take that Marks and Spencers...

A one-man consumer boycott, Tony Benn, Zac Goldsmith, the BBC cat and other issues...

We've got rather a lovely little spat underway here at newstatesman.com. It all stems from Sian Berry's reaction to the Conservative Party's Quality of Life review put together by Tory A-lister Zac Goldsmith and ex-cabinet minister John Gummer.

A few days after we posted Sian's blog Zac responded accusing her of not even reading the report.

Well NS blogger and Green Party London mayoral candidate wasn't taking that lying down and was soon tapping away at her keyboard. Why not have a read of her retort? Obviously I've offered ZG a right of reply so watch this space in case there are more developments....

Next I'd like to highlight the very welcome return of Simon Munnery. He's back and on first rate form pondering the role of the telly chef in modern Britain.

"Chefs always use 'the finest ingredients'. Isn’t that cheating? Shouldn’t a great chef be able to create a decent meal out of mediocre ingredients? Where do chefs get off anyway taking the credit for food; they didn’t make it after all - they only heated it up, chopped it and slapped it on a plate," he writes.

This week we've also had fantastic contribution to our Faith Column from Onkar Ghate. He writes on Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

Now, in the closing weeks of September parts of Britain erupt into something of a frenzy as the politicians return from their (very) long summer breaks and, presumably to recoup from time with their families, head to the seaside.

Actually the whole thing begins with the TUC sometime in September and finally ends in the first week of October with the Tories.

Well throughout all of this we've been running the New Statesman Conference Blog.

Next week Labour descends on Bournemouth so look out for a mixture of MPs, union members and activists in the coming days. Tony Benn kicks off our coverage on Sunday...

Finally, I had some extremely upsetting news this week. You may (or may not) have read my article in the mag on Pavarotti and how no-one slept in 1990. Well towards the end I cite Take That as one of the reasons the nineties didn't live up to their early promise.

Now I've just discovered that Marks and Spencer are to use the far from fabulous four in an advertising campaign so I'm afraid I shan't be able to shop there anymore.

Mind you I don't anticipate a huge downturn in M&S profits. I've been boycotting Crunchie bars for about 16 years - ever since the commercial featuring a peculiarly annoying chap wearing a ginger wig - and so far as I know the Cadbury company still flourishes.

Finally, viewers wanted to call the new Blue Peter cat 'Cookies'. The BBC fixed it so the animal was named Socks. Now heads have rolled and the corporation is making amends by getting a kitten that will be called Cookies. Oh the seamless art of PR.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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