Osborne's cheerleaders have got their facts wrong

One extra bank holiday can't explain the dramatic decline in working hours.

David Smith of the Sunday Times seems to enjoy taking potshots at me on his blog. This time, he has criticised the blog I posted yesterday regarding the decline in working hours, because he seems unable to believe that the economy is tanking. He, of course, has been one of Osborne's main cheerleaders in the press and has constantly argued that the recovery is in full force and all is well in the UK economy. He has called the recovery again and again and has been proved wrong again and again.

This is what he said under the headline "Blanchflower and the missing hours":

But hang on a second, didn't we have an extra bank holiday in the second quarter? And wouldn't that naturally lead to a fall in hours worked? Of course it would. In fact, there's an 11m drop in weekly hours worked between the first and second quarters. The sequence of weekly hours worked numbers, Q2 2010 917.6m, Q3 921.1m, Q4 920.7m, Q1 2011 921.9m, Q2 910.6m, points strongly to a bank holiday effect, as the Office for National Statistics says in its explanatory notes.

He went on: "Danny needs to get his facts straight."

Actually, David needs to get his facts straight as first, he clearly didn't read the explanatory notes that say, and I quote, "The quarterly falls in the estimates of total hours worked and average weekly hours were PARTLY due to an additional public holiday on 29 April 2011 (for the Royal Wedding) which occurred four days after the Easter Monday public holiday."

That doesn't quite cut it, as we can see from the monthly data from the ONS website that hours of work were around the same level in March, April and May (see below).

2010 May 917.6 hours
2010 Jun 921.3 hours
2010 Jul 919.7 hours
2010 Aug 921.1 hours
2010 Sep 918.8 hours
2010 Oct 914.7hours
2010 Nov 920.7 hours
2010 Dec 925.4 hours
2011 Jan 929.6 hours
2011 Feb 921.9 hours
2011 Mar 910.9 hours
2011 Apr 911.0 hours
2011 May 910.6 hours

Good try David. So how exactly would a bank holiday in April lower hours in March or May? Time to get your facts straight, mate, before coming after yours truly. The coalition is responsible for reductions in the demand for labour, hence the poor spending data.

PS Note Smith's coalition supporting spin today on his website. The media are full of the disappointing retail sales data but Smith's headline today is "Retail sales edge up". On 14 August, it was: "Labour's VAT plan would threaten Britain's AAA rating". It is pretty easy to see his true colours.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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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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