A Cameron-Murdoch alliance could devastate the BBC

Many Conservatives sympathise with James Murdoch's attack on the BBC as a state behemoth

Does the BBC have much to fear following James Murdoch's turn as Gordon Gekko at the Edinburgh International Television Festival?

In previous years the rhetorical excesses of his MacTaggart Lecture, which invoked George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four to damn the BBC, could have been playfully batted away by the corporation's executives.

But this year, with a Tory party increasingly sceptical of the BBC's size and scale on the brink of power, the corporation faces the threat of a powerful alliance between Cameron's Conservatives and Murdoch's News Corporation.

If Cameron promises to cut the BBC's funding and to reverse what Murdoch described as its "chilling" landgrab he could secure the support of the Sun and the News of the World at the next election.

Murdoch may have delivered his speech to an audience of television executives, but it was dominated by his concern that the BBC's vast online presence prohibits any attempt to successfully charge for news websites.

Murdoch Sr has declared that he intends to charge for all his news websites by next summer and his papers are likely to line up behind those politicians who promise to curb the influence of the BBC.

The Conservatives have already demonstrated their willingness to challenge the successive licence fee increases the world's largest broadcaster has enjoyed under Labour.

In May, parliament voted on a Tory proposal to freeze the licence fee, with Cameron arguing that during the recession the BBC needed to do "more with less".

The proposal made little political impact and was easily defeated by 334-156 votes, but it set an important precedent. BBC executives are more troubled by Cameron's suggestion that the licence fee could be reviewed annually, exposing the corporation's £3.6bn annual income to unprecedented scrutiny.

Many Conservatives have great sympathy with Murdoch's call for the BBC to become "far, far smaller". Like him, a significant number believe that the continued expansion of the BBC even as its commercial rivals lose millions in advertising revenue is intolerable.

At a time when the government's Digital Britain report has argued that the licence fee should be "top-sliced" and shared with the BBC's competitors, the corporation finds itself unusually short of friends and increasingly vulnerable.

The BBC Trust's perfunctory response to Murdoch's harangue did little to raise morale within the broadcaster. Unless the BBC's leading figures begin to make the positive case for its funding far more effectively than they have done, they may be unable to prevent the formation of a potentially destructive alliance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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