Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Independent's Hamish McRae says that politicians must struggle to get the deficit under control before the next downturn in eight or ten years' time:

[C]orrecting the deficit is a race against time. We got through the downturn in the early 2000s in very good shape because our public finances were exceptionally strong when we went into it and public spending could, to some extent, offset slower private spending. We are doing badly this time because our finances were relatively weak. We don't want to face an even bigger catastrophe next time round.

In the Daily Telegraph, Irwin Stelzer writes that David Cameron continues to be alarmingly unclear about his economic policies:

[A]ll we know is that he plans to eliminate waste, and that he might go along with Labour's plan to raise the marginal tax rate to 50 per cent, but might not. He would like to cut benefits, but is not certain which ones -- or is not saying. He plans to extend parent choice, but is against vouchers. He might be planning green taxes, but we can't be sure. He does want to raise VAT, but might change his mind if the recession continues to bite and shopkeepers howl.

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland warns that if Barack Obama can't win support for health-care reform there is no hope of the US reaching agreement on a new climate-change treaty. The greens and diplomats who hailed his victory may be disappointed:

They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America's frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that's the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd says that the disciplining of Congressman Joe Wilson for calling Barack Obama a "liar" in Congress revealed a positive side to US politics:

It was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it -- from music arenas to tennis courts to political gatherings to hallowed halls -- and a ratification of an institution that has relied on strict codes of conduct for two centuries to prevent a breakdown of order.

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein argues that parties must broaden their membership to avoid the dangers of "group polarisation", under which individuals become more extreme as they deliberate with each other:

Group discussion among racially prejudiced people made them more prejudiced; the punitive damage awards of mock juries are higher than the median of individual jurors; a group of chess players was more inclined to a risky strategy than the individuals; a group of burglars became more cautious about the ease of breaking into a house than they would individually; protesters against police brutality became more supportive of violent action after group debate.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496