Our problem is no longer unwillingness to spend on infrastructure, it's inability

Outsourcing government policy since 2010

As my colleague George Eaton wrote this morning, the political top-line from the government's announcement of a £50bn infrastructure program is that it signals a gruff acceptance of Keynesian economics:

The delusion that the coalition's spending cuts would increase consumer confidence and produce a self-sustaining private-sector-led recovery has been abandoned after Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction" turned out to be, well, contractionary.

But getting wonkish about it, there is something interesting buried in all this about how the government has chosen to execute this volte-face. Rather than simply borrow the money – at interest rates so low that it would basically be paid to do so – it has announced that it will guarantee the private loans of any company which fulfils certain requirements.

Doubtless part of the reason is political. This way, the government can confidently state that they aren't adding anything to the deficit, even though this way of borrowing is functionally identical to doing it the standard, on-the-books way. But part of it will be because infrastructure investment is really hard.

According to the FT:

To qualify for the new guarantees, projects must be ready to start in the 12 months from the offer being made and Treasury officials say they will be monitored to ensure they would not have gone ahead in any case.

The thing is, there just aren't that many shovel-ready projects simply lying around the place, and certainly not big flashy ones. Although the government is proclaiming that the Thames tunnel, the Mersey Gateway toll bridge and the A14 road widening in Cambridge could all be helped with the money, it's usually more mundane things which are the easiest use of infrastructure spending. Forget high-speed rail and airport islands, and focus on sewers and road resurfacing.

Unfortunately, its relatively tricky to spend £50bn on sewers in a year. Thames Water is replacing all the Victorian Water mains in London, but its taking 5 years and costing £5bn. To do it any faster would risk chaos in the streets. And noteably, they had already started that program without the governments money. That's going to be true of a lot of the low-level infrastructure investments that would otherwise be ripe for targeted spending.

So the government needs ideas. And what better way to get them than to offload the generating of them to the private sector? It's no longer just a government outsourcing based on ideology. It's now a government outsourcing because it has literally no idea how to enact policy it desperately wants to.

Osborne knows what it means to be Keynesian, but doesn't know how to do it. If you think you do, why not bid for his money?

The Thames tunnel, one of the proposed uses of the infrastructure money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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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