Why the failure to elect regional mayors is bad for business.

The coalition's regional policies have been quietly disastrous.

Amidst the headlines reporting the Coalition’s trouncing in the local elections, a significant policy aspect has gone less commented upon: the almost total failure of the introduction of directly elected mayors. On Thursday nine out of ten councils voted against the plan to install mayors in major cities, with just Bristol agreeing to the idea.

For David Cameron, who talked about constituting a “cabinet of mayors”, it is a personal failure, reminiscent of John Prescott’s ill-fated (and much-mocked by the Tories) experiment with regional government. But this is also a failure for the business community.

The introduction of powerful mayors was supposed to be a stimulus for economic development outside London. The mandate from a popular mayor, it was argued, would be able to aggregate powers and responsibilities in the same way that the London mayor has since 2000. When Livingstone was first elected in the capital, the role was little more than a figurehead. However assiduous lobbying by him and his successor Boris Johnson means the role, contrary to popular opinion, now controls multi-billion-pound budgets and huge responsibilities for transport, policing, housing, skills training and planning.

The idea of similarly powerful figures for major cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is one that had the potential to be a significant boost for economic growth in those areas. The force of a personal mandate batting solely for those areas raised the prospect of smarter leadership able to respond more directly to the problems of the regional economies.

And let’s be honest, any and all help is required, because it is undeniably bleak out there. The three per cent fall in construction output recorded in the first quarter of this year will have come largely from continuing declines in the regional economies. The Olympics, Crossrail, Thameslink and construction of new office towers like the Shard in the City have been keeping the London construction economy reasonably buoyant throughout the recession, notwithstanding a few wobbles. But other than a few bright spots, construction has largely shut down outside the south east, with house prices still falling. (Prices in the North-east are still 13 per cent lower than they were before the credit crunch four years ago, in Northern Ireland they are still a staggering 40 per cent lower than they were).

The Coalition’s policies designed to rebalance the economy between London and the rest have been, so far, quietly disastrous. Scrapping the Regional Development Agencies that had supported job creation schemes across the country for a decade, and a raft of other regeneration funds, took £7bn out of the regional economies. The much touted Regional Growth Fund that replaced this money is worth just £2bn, and as of September last year hadn’t actually handed out any money. If you add to this the limited impact of the (unfunded) Local Economic Partnerships supposed to replace the RDAs, and the fact that direct government construction spend is hugely weighted toward London and the South East, and its not hard to see why the regions are struggling.

The setting up of directly elected mayors was supposed to be one positive move to turn this depressing picture around. It now looks like that spark of light has been extinguished. Expectations for this afternoon’s Coalition re-launch are very limited.

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine.

Photograph: Getty Images

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

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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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