Political sketch: Grown ups at Leveson

Vince Cable and Ken Clarke face Leveson and Jay

Fresh from kipping at the cricket it took the Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke just a few minutes to reduce the Leveson inquiry into the press into an irrelevance: "My advice is stop reading them".

And if further proof were needed: "Margaret Thatcher never read a newspaper from one week to the next," he said before settling his ample frame into his seat for his post-lunch appearance.

Ken, who also doubles as Justice Secretary, was the undoubted master of chillaxing when it was still chilling and his contempt for those politicians who succumb to fear of the press was on display for all, including his Cabinet colleagues, to see.

"The present incestuous relationship between the two is quite peculiar and all based on the belief that daily headlines really matter, and I don't think they really do", said the man whose head is demanded on a daily basis by the more recidivist end of the Street of Shame.

O for the good old days, he reminisced, when journalists knew scandal they did not write about.

When Ken first got into politics Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister and his wife Dorothy was having an affair with a Tory MP which went on for 30 years and nobody wrote about it. Try that today, he said, and you would be out on your ear in three days. But be not afraid was his message to his Cabinet chums. Terror of the tabloids does not work because they turn on you eventually anyway, he said, before settling down to a Q and A with Lord Leveson clearly relieved to have somebody grown up to talk to at last.

It was not meant to be Ken's day but that of his coalition colleague Vince Cable without whom one could say, much of the fun to be discovered in this previously undistinguished room in the Royal Courts of Justice would never have been found.

Vince had turned up for his go in the morning and observers expected him to bask, at least internally, in the knowledge that he had been right when he raised doubts over the now-abandoned Murdoch plan to own all of BSkyB.

But first we had to get to how the Business Secretary, charged with taking an independent and quasi-judicial (the phrase which has kept his bid successor Jeremy Hunt slim since Christmas) view of the plan, managed to blurt that he was "out to get Murdoch."

And would interrogator Robert Jay get to throw more light on why Vince, at the time split between this and practicing for his entry into Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing, chose two comely strangers to cough up on his Murdoch views only to discover later they were from the less than Lib Dem Daily Telegraph?

Vince, who has an unfortunate habit of looking like something found just above the door at York Minster' blinked his way through a succession of stories as he found ground on which to stand whilst justifying his actions.

He quickly dismissed the independence argument by revealing that "an independent mind did not mean a blank mind". Indeed, until the unfortunate meeting with two people he had never met before in his life in his constituency office just before Christmas 2010, he had talked to no-one of his views.

Why then choose to, as he put it, "offload all" to two young women who had popped in claiming to be constituents?

Vince explained that first there had been a near-riot outside his office that evening as constituents apparently unhappy with his stance on everything from the Government's spending plans to tuition fees had tried to impress their views on parts of his body.

He had also heard that "veiled threats" had been issued against the Lib-Dems who he had been told would be "done over" by the Murdoch press if he failed to pass their bid.

These threats he said had allegedly been made by Fred Michel, the corporate political fixer employed by Murdoch companies.

Mr Michel came to fame himself at the inquiry as the man who knows everybody who is somebody and who spends every waking hour sending them texts - particularly if they know or are Jeremy Hunt.

And, said Vince, it was the juxtapositioning of these two events which led to his self-discipline to break down "momentarily " and give the two Telegraph journalists an unexpected scoop.

Had he kept is mouth shut who knows what would have happened. What wouldn't have happened will happen tomorrow. Step forward Jeremy Hunt.

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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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