The case for a referendum on Lords reform

If the politicians really can't decide, the public should.

Is it any wonder that the public tire of politics, when politicians spend an inordinate amount of time squabbling over an issue they all fundamentally agree about?

All three main parties put reform of the Lords in their manifestos, we can argue about the details, but the principle of a need for change was clear. Today, a cross-party group of parliamentarians has published a report that recommends some sensible and appropriate changes to the way the upper house is constituted. At which point professional politicians all over the shop will throw toys out of their pram left, right and centre, and create a Westminster firestorm over a policy that just 6 per cent of the public think should be a priority. Why don’t they just sort it?

It does seem to me that the arguments against reform fly in the face of democracy. The main theme this week is ’electing representatives to the upper house gives them a democratic legitimacy that the current Lords do not have, threatening the primacy of The House of Commons’. Is that really an argument for not reforming the current system – that the lack of an elected mandate for the Lords, making them a less effective opposition to the Commons, is a good thing? Previously the main argument was ‘if we don’t appoint good people to the Lords, then we’ll lose the best talent’. Again – isn’t it up to the people to decide who the best talent is? Otherwise, you end up in a similar situation to Greece or Italy with a political elite foisted on them in dubious democratic circumstances.

But that’s just me (and the Lib Dems). I understand there are others with different views. So I think the public should probably decide,  if the politicians really can’t. After all, anyone who voted Lib Dem, Labour or Tory voted for it at the last general election.

Which is why, unlike many in my party, I’m not particularly against the idea of a referendum on this issue. I well understand the arguments against one – all three parties advocated reform in their manifesto, the mandate for change already exists. I also understand the whispered fear in the Lib Dems – having been burned by the AV referendum last year (and having seen the rather nasty but highly effective campaign against reform by our coalition, ahem, partners), why put ourselves through that mill again? And the "fast and loose with the truth" nature of that last campaign seems to be starting already.

But my answer would be – trust the people. There is a mandate for change. There is a majority for change. We are talking about a major constitutional reform, the only time perhaps a referendum is justified in a parliamentary democracy. And frankly, as a Liberal Democrat, I find it hard to argue against giving people the final say.

I, for one, would be happy to get out there and make the case for change.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Queen Elizabeth II speaks during her address to the House of Lords, during the State Opening of Parliament in Westminster. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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