The Berlusconi-Murdoch war continues

Who will win this billionaire smackdown?

Among those who will relish Silvio Berlusconi's present woes is Rupert Murdoch. The media mogul has reserved a special enmity for the Italian premier ever since he doubled the rate of VAT on satellite television to 20 per cent.

The subtle response of Murdoch's Sky Italia was to screen the film Killing Silvio, which depicts a man's quest to assassinate Berlusconi.

Later, the Murdoch-owned Times and New York Post relentlessly recorded Berlusconi's sexual peccadilloes and financial misdemeanours. The prime minister has since threatened to sue the newspapers in question for libel.

The feud between the pair got hotter last month when Murdoch's News Corp announced that it had filed a lawsuit against two of the firms in Berlusconi's media empire. Murdoch claimed that RTI and Publitalia -- the TV and advertising arms of Mediaset -- had refused to accept advertising from Sky Italia.

So, after Berlusconi was stripped of his immunity from prosecution, it was no surprise to see the Times's leader denounce the Italian premier with a ferocity unmatched by its competitors:

Little could have more clearly shown Mr Berlusconi's contempt for the law than his lawyer's Orwellian assertion to the court that the prime minister was no longer "first among equals" but ought to be considered "first above equals" . . . He has sought to live above the law; now he will be consumed by it. It is surely time that Mr Berlusconi stop putting his own interests ahead of his country's. He should resign.

Confronted by the struggle between Murdoch and Berlusconi, many may be tempted to echo Henry Kissinger's remark during the Iran-Iraq war: "It's a pity they can't both lose."

But for once we should be grateful for the "Dirty Digger" and his formidable media machine. His self-interested war against Berlusconi may yet hasten the decline of a man who continues to subject democracy and civility to remarkable degradation.

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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