Iraq inquiry: it's too early to shout "whitewash"

Those already denouncing Chilcot hearings should be patient

The Iraq inquiry got under way this morning with Sir John Chilcot promising that his team will be "fair, rigorous and frank". Chilcot began, rather appropriately, I thought, with a moment's silence for all those killed in Iraq.

There has already been some criticism over the size of the inquiry room, with a large number of journalists turned away at the door. Channel 4's Gary Gibbon writes: "This must be the smallest room used for an inquiry ever. I estimate it is 10m x 10m. I have seen bigger inquiry rooms at a council planning hearing."

The green-ink brigade were shouting, "Whitewash! whitewash!" even before Chilcot had delivered his opening statement. But short of Tony Blair being arraigned in The Hague for war crimes, it is hard to think of anything that could satisfy them.

The opening statement confirmed that the inquiry will be modelled closely on the Franks inquest into the Falklands war, seeking to learn lessons and making recommendations for future governments. But unlike that exercise, as much of the new Iraq inquiry as possible will be held in public, thanks to Chilcot's victory over Gordon Brown. His decision to stand up to the Prime Minister over this central issue bodes well for the future.

He issued an appeal for evidence from members of the public, an effort to prevent the inquiry merely presenting an establishment view of the war.

We don't want to, and are not, just hearing from the "official" representatives. We value hearing a broad spectrum of views from a wide range of people and organisations. We want to know what people across Britain think are the important questions. We want to get a range of challenging perspectives on the issues we are considering.

He also urged the public to be patient, pointing to a further round of hearings due to be held in the middle of 2010. He said: "We expect to invite back some previous witnesses and, where relevant, call some new ones. What I would like to stress now is that people should not jump to conclusions if they do not hear everything they expect to in the first round of hearings: there will be more to follow."

I'm dubious about the inclusion in the panel of Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the architects of Blair's version of "liberal interventionism", and Sir Martin Gilbert, who once compared Bush and Blair to Churchill and Roosevelt, but Chilcot himself appears, for now at least, robustly independent.

With the mountain of documents the committee has to go through, I'd be surprised if the inquiry concludes before the end of 2010. But I am quietly confident that this won't be the "establishment whitewash" some expect it to be.

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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