Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Guardian's Martin Kettle argues that David Cameron's strident anti-statism raises questions about his suitability for office:

Does anyone else in the economically developed world believe that the financial crisis has all been the fault of government? Or that the recovery, when it happens, will have nothing to do with ministers' actions? It is hard to believe that the word "market" did not appear anywhere in Cameron's hour-long speech, but it didn't. Nor was there anything about the banks. This is ignorant or dogmatic -- or both. Either way, it raises a massive question about Cameron's claims to lead the country.

In the Wall Street Journal, Tony Blair says that China is changing for the better in every sphere:

There is a new cadre of people coming to the fore within government. Conversations with Chinese leaders today -- at the provincial, as well as the central government level -- are a world away from the stilted, pro forma exchanges I remember on my first visit 20 years ago.

The Financial Times's Philip Stephens argues that the Conservatives are wilfully encouraging the politics of pessimism:

Senior Conservatives say that the gloom is all about honesty: tell it how it is and the voters will trust you. A slightly more cynical interpretation says that the darker the picture the party paints before the election, the more credit it will gain when prosperity returns.

My fear is that the urge to slash-and-burn has elbowed aside everything else; that, for many in Mr Cameron's party, the casting of government as the villain is a sufficient prospectus to govern.

The New York Times's Paul Krugman warns that the economic crisis has further weakened America's education system:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States economy lost 273,000 jobs last month. Of those lost jobs, 29,000 were in state and local education, bringing the total losses in that category over the past five months to 143,000. That may not sound like much, but education is one of those areas that should, and normally does, keep growing even during a recession. Markets may be troubled, but that's no reason to stop teaching our children. Yet that's exactly what we're doing.

In the Daily Mail, Max Hastings says that General Dannatt's charge into the political arena sets a worrying precedent:

[P]oliticisation of the army represents a big change for Britain. A precedent is being established which must lead to many difficulties. These will recur whenever and wherever the army is committed to operations and its commanders dislike the terms of engagement set by the government of the day. This they often do, and will again in the future.

 

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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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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