PMQs sketch: Angela Merkel's bazookas

After a month without, PMQs returns with LOLs, nurses and ... the economy.

It was when Sir Bufton Tufton rose and asked about Angela Merkel and her bazookas that you wondered if the future of the country really was in safe hands.

Some may point out that Sir B is a fictional character but that only makes it even harder to explain away Sir Peter Hannay Bailey Tapsell, Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle.

Sir Peter, who doubles as Father of the House of Commons, is not apparently fictional but makes a good stab at it at every opportunity he gets.

And one such opportunity came earlier today when he found himself at Prime Ministers Questions with a bit of spare time on his hands.

PMQs returned to the parliamentary timetable today after an absence of almost a month to give MPs a bit of a break after they had a bit of a break for Easter six weeks ago and before they go off for a bit of a break for Whitsun in eight day's time.

Since they last got together the government has re-launched itself at least two more times, growth forecasts have again been down-graded, Tories and Lib Dems massacred in local elections and some of the Prime Minister's best mates sent up in front of the Leveson Inquiry.

With Dave himself due in the same dock soon, Labour with a double-digit lead in the polls and even Ed Miliband less nerdy than ever, the stage was set for a scintillating - if one-side - return to the fray.

Indeed the PM displayed a sickly pallor, if such a thing is possible beneath the expensive tan of someone who travels abroad as often as possible, as he arrived for the contest. His nervous demeanour was only matched by that of his Chancellor George Osborne, who clearly expected a kicking himself; but neither could match the appearance of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who looked as if tears were but one further slight snub away.

Time off usually imbues PMQs with that back-to-school excitement so beloved of many MPs but a few days of debates on the Queen's Speech seemed to have taken their toll and even the usual suspects took time to open their insults bags.

Having been roundly drubbed by Ed M at all appearances at the Despatch Box in recent months, Dave has been told by his advisors that he must get a grip on his temper and his tantrums.

And arriving with welcome news on the unemployment front he seemed in control as he batted away the Labour leader's early insults which themselves appeared to have been on holiday. But breeding will out and after a few fumbles Ed managed to re-locate the button which turns Dave into his alter-ego Harry Flashman and normal service was resumed.

Having dropped in references to Leveson and last week's exposure of his LOL texting tendencies by Rebekah Brooks (which Dave was at least  prepared for), Ed turned the screw.

Energetically aided and abetted by his own in-house bruiser Ed Balls, he moved on to the economy, dropped in the nurses, asked what the Prime Minister was on, and told him to calm down.

To be fair, Dave tried his best but you could see he will need a few more hours on the couch. Snacking on the PM has been a regular hors d'oeuvres on the Commons lunch menu for Labour in recent months. But it's also been a hidden pleasure for his Cabinet Ministers as well; happy to see him getting a slice of what he serves up to them regularly.

But most of the infamous faces were notable by their absence today - although reports were coming in of Home Secretary Theresa May taking serious abuse from the Police Federation, and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had only managed to make his way to the end of the Front Bench.

With a re-shuffle now apparently imminent could it be that out-of-sight, out-of-mind may be the approach being taken by those on whose feet, if not careers, the Prime Minister has to trod as he makes his usually baleful exit from the Chamber.

All of which brings us untidily back to Sir Bufton. Or at least his presence on earth, Sir Peter, and his question about the German Chancellor and her bazookas.

Sir Peter, who has not been bothered by the the demands of high political office in his fifty-plus years as an MP, often makes interventions which soar above the heads of most of those present, and his latest was no exception.

The Prime Minister, noting the appearance of Angela Merkel amongst the words, chose to answer a question about Greece . . .

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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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