Police corruption, the duck house of Hackgate and King Lear for girls

Rebekah Brooks's horse is the £1,645 duck house of Hackgate.

Leveson-watchers were expecting the second part of the inquiry, focusing on the relationship between the press and the police, to be the most interesting. And so it is.

On 27 February, we had Sue Akers, a deputy assistant commissioner at the Met, telling Lord Justice Leveson that there was "a culture at the Sun of illegal payments" to police officers and public officials, with one trousering £80,000 over a number of years. (Contrast that with the Times's report a few days after the most recent arrests, worrying that a Sun hack was "questioned over a £50 lunch claim".)

The next day, former BBC Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames told the inquiry that she was placed under surveillance by the News of the World after her husband, a police officer, became the "face" of one of several tortuous investigations into the murder of a man named Daniel Morgan. One of the suspects was Morgan's business partner, Jonathan Rees, a private investigator paid £150,000 a year by the NoW when it was edited by Andy Coulson. She told the inquiry that Rees, who was eventually tried for the 1987 murder in 2011 (the case collapsed), had "close links" to the paper's news editor.

So why was Hames put under surveillance? Paragraph 40 of her witness statement puts it clearly: "I believe that the real reason for the News of the World placing us under surveillance was that suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry were using their association with a powerful and well-resourced newspaper to try to intimidate us and so attempt to subvert the investigation."

If that is true, it's frightening. And the Leveson inquiry can never be mocked as a "celebrity hurt-feelings tribunal" again.

Her kingdom for a horse
Next to those two allegations, it was easy to miss the news that Scotland Yard had tipped off News International's chief executive Rebekah Brooks about the extent of hacking as early as 2006. Sportingly, they asked her if she "wishe[d] to take it further" than the arrests of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire.

The flood of new revelations not only makes the abrupt closure of the NoW more and more understandable, but the opening of the Sun on Sunday a provocative move. By Tuesday, things were looking so bad that some suggested the story of the Met "loaning" Rebekah Brooks a retired police horse had been deliberately leaked to divert attention. That's possibly a bit far-fetched - not to mention a terrible idea, given that the intricacies of claim and counter-claim are hard to keep up with, but "she was so close to police they lent her a horse" is easily digestible. It's the £1,645 duck house of Hackgate.

Out to lunch
I hope there's better to come from WikiLeaks's latest venture, the release of five million emails from the US-based intelligence firm Stratfor. So far, observations by this apparently shadowy organisation include the breathless: "I got a lot of info on [Swedish politician] Carl Bildt. . . Bildt apparently super tall, has photographic memory and is very smart. . . Bildt believes that Sweden should become a world power." (That was marked "SPECIAL HANDLING: Secure".)

Another email promisingly begins: "Admit nothing, deny everything and make counter-accusations." However, it turns out to be responding to Rob in the finance department, who complains that "someone has taken the lunch that I brought in. . . That's commonly known as stealing".

Past tents
My morning walk to work is a little less interesting now that the Occupy protesters have been evicted from St Paul's. Every morning, there was a quiet bustle of activity; later, there were talks in the "university tent" and pleas for food donations outside the canteen. Did the protesters achieve their aims? It's impossible to say, not least because their aims were so nebulous. Unlike many protest movements, they did not start timid and become more radicalised - they started off fighting for the dismantling of capitalism and ended up arguing for their right to exist. With the tuition-fee protests more violent and the outcry against the coalition's NHS and school reforms likely to be deeper and more widespread, I doubt Occupy will be more than a footnote in the history of David Cameron's coalition goverment. But still, as I trudge past the steps of the cathedral, its cream stone looks suddenly bare.

Setting the Vagenda
I gave up women's mags for blood pressure-related reasons some years ago, but I might be tempted back by the online-only Vagenda, which is acerbic and hilarious in equal measure. Its tagline is "Like King Lear, but for girls" - which is how Grazia described The Iron Lady - and it has the pasted-up look of an old-school underground magazine.

Vagenda was started less than a month ago by a group of largely anonymous female writers who decided "the women's press is a large hadron collider of bullshit and that something needed to be done". As someone who never again wishes to be told which £900 handbag is "this season's must-have" because its makers have bought a shedload of adverts, I applaud it.

Dislike a Virgin
Sorry to turn this page into First Thoughts on Virgin Media, but I read Peter Wilby's travails with the company with interest last week, as I had an engineer due round to instal my broadband on Saturday. Internet providers come just above letting agents (and below budget airlines) on my League of Companies Who Treat You Badly Because They Can Get Away With It, so I was shocked to my core when the whole thing went without a hitch. The engineer departed, I retired to my bedroom to work on my laptop . . . and the door refused to shut. Yes, he'd wired the cable right into the door frame.

Next week: Peter Wilby

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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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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