Cameron or Coulson, who's lying?

The PM contradicted Coulson's claim that he sought no "further assurances" over hacking.

Despite several uncomfortable moments, I suspect that Downing Street will largely be relieved with how David Cameron's performance at the Leveson inquiry went today. Cameron was visibly unnerved by the publication of Rebekah Brooks's cringeworthy text to him, but its sycophantic tone reflected worse on her than him.

Questioned over his decision to hand Jeremy Hunt ministerial responsibility for the BSkyB bid, Cameron was forced to admit that at the time he did not recall Hunt's memo to him in support of the deal. But he regained the initiative when he revealed that the Treasury solicitor, Paul Jenkins, later ruled that the memo did not mean the Culture Secretary was unfit for the role. "If anyone had told me that Jeremy Hunt couldn't do the job, I wouldn't have given him the job," Cameron declared. That no one appears to have done so is a significant point in the Prime Minister's favour. If he has any sense, Leveson will now summon the lawyers and civil servants in question to the inquiry to scrutinise their advice to Cameron.

On Andy Coulson, Cameron dismissed the controversy over his lower-level security vetting as a "complete red herring". It was cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood who made the decision that Coulson need not be subject to developed vetting at first as he fell within the special adviser category. Yet all of Coulson's recent predecessors received top-level clearance. Again, Heywood should be called to the inquiry to explain himself.

It was the exchange on phone-hacking that proved most notable. Asked by Robert Jay QC what assurances he sought from Coulson before hiring him as the Conservatives' director of communications, Cameron told the inquiry: "I raised the issue of phone-hacking and sought the assurance in the face-to-face meeting we had in my office". He added: "I accepted these undertakings but so did many other people and organisations who did a considerable amount to try and get to the bottom of this issue."

In his testimony to the inquiry last month, Coulson said that he did not "recall" Cameron seeking any "further assurances" after the Guardian reported in July 2009 that phone-hacking went far beyond "one rogue reporter". But in his witness statement, Cameron declared:

I was of course aware of the phone-hacking related article the Guardian published in July 2009. The question I asked myself all the way through was, 'Is there new information that Andy Coulson knew about hacking at the News of the World while he was the editor?'

I made the decision to employ Andy Coulson in good faith because of the assurances he gave me. I did not see any information in those articles that would have led me to change my mind about these assurances.

Nevertheless in the light of these stories I asked Andy Coulson to repeat the assurances that he gave me when I first employed him … He repeated those assurances. (Emphasis mine.)

We are left to conclude that either Coulson or Cameron misled the inquiry over the discussions that took place following the new hacking revelations.

One might also note further evidence of Cameron's extreme naïveté (or knavishness). After the New York Times published new evidence that  phone-hacking was more extensive than News International claimed, Cameron told the inquiry that he simply accepted Coulson's assurances. At no point did he seek independent verification of them.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street ahead of his appearance at the Leveson inquiry. 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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