Why isn't Osborne appearing at the Leveson inquiry?

The man who first approached Coulson should appear in person.

The current phase of the Leveson inquiry, focusing on the relationship between politicians and the press, will see David Cameron and six senior cabinet ministers (Nick Clegg, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, Ken Clarke and Jeremy Hunt) take to the witness stand. Yet, bizarrely, George Osborne is not one of them. The Chancellor will not appear in person and will merely submit a witness statement. I say bizarrely because, as was confirmed again during Andy Coulson's testimony, it was Osborne who first suggested that Cameron should hire Coulson as the Conservatives' communications director. Here's the key extract from Coulson's witness statement:

The first approach from the Conservatives came from George Osborne, I believe in March 2007 (NB: this was just two months after Coulson resigned as editor of the News of the World over phone-hacking). He contacted me and we met at a London hotel for a drink. In that conversation he told me that the Conservative Party wanted to make changes to its professional operation and asked whether I would be interested in joining the team ... I believe David Cameron called me later that night to say that Mr Osborne hold told him of our conversation and that he would like to meet.

Questioned at length on why the Conservatives had hired him, Coulson replied at one point: "I don't want to be obstructive, but that's a question for Mr Osborne". Indeed it is, which is precisely why the Chancellor should appear himself. As Lib Dem peer Michael Oakeshott has quipped, "Leveson without Osborne would be like Hamlet without the prince".

Before Coulson's appearance yesterday, James Murdoch told the inquiry that he complained to Osborne about the "slow" progress of the BSkyB bid. In his witness statement, he recorded:

I recall one conversation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, about the bid ... I expressed my concern at the slow progress with the regulatory process, my view that the investment would be good for Britain and also my view that there were no plurality issues raised by our proposal.

Osborne met Murdoch executives 16 times in the period following the general election, including two meetings with Rupert Murdoch and four with James Murdoch. Rebekah Brooks, who will appear at the inquiry from 10am this morning, met Osborne five times in her capacity as chief executive of News International. Should she divulge the details of their conversations, the pressure for Osborne to appear himself could become irresistible.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street on May 10, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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