Tories U-turn on plan to appear like eccentric aristocrats

Buzzards will no longer be captured and have their nests destroyed to protect pheasants, says DEFRA

Another U-turn from the government today, as DEFRA has announced that it is to stop funding research on catching buzzards to protect pheasant stocks.

The original plan had been for the department to spend £375,000 on capturing the birds of prey, which are a protected species in the UK, and destroying their nests. The aim was to see whether this reduces the amount of young pheasants they ate. Not only is there no evidence that buzzards eat that many anyway (an RSPB study concluded "losses to birds of prey were negligible"), but as George Monbiot, leading the charge against the plan, pointed out:

The government has no responsibility to protect pheasant shoots from our native wildlife, though it does have a responsibility to protect our native wildlife from pheasant shoots.

The fact that destroying the nests of a native protected species to protect the young of an imported species farmed to be shot for sport largely by the super-rich did not strike DEFRA or its minister, Richard Benyon ("inheritor of a vast stately home and a 20,000-acre walled estate in the south of England, as well as properties elsewhere" according to Monbiot), as a potential source of bad press is surprising. Once the policy was announced, however, the outcry was large and sustianed, so this morning the department announced:

We’ve listened to public concerns, so we are stopping current research and developing new research proposals on #buzzards.

On the one hand, the fact that the department is no longer officially acting like an eccentric arisocrat, railing against those damn birds eating their damn birds, is probably a good thing. On the other hand, it has revealed who the government's true constituents are:

The department's decision has itself been strongly criticised by the Countryside Alliance, which argues it shows the Government is "now willing to give in to whoever shouts the loudest".

A buzzard sits in a tree. It has yet to be captured. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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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