PMQs sketch: Humps and u-turns for a puce PM

Dizzy Dave defends his latest backtrack.

It is befitting for someone who went to Eton and Oxford that when they get the hump they should not be restricted to the common or garden dromedary variety but instead move on immediately to the bactrian.

So it was that David Cameron adopted the two-hump approach to Prime Ministers Questions as he tried yet again, and failed yet again, to defend the government’s latest u-turn on the Budget-from-hell of 2012.

Scoring a goal against him at PMQs has become a bit like taking part in a penalty shoot-out (pause for private grief) when the keeper has decided to pop out for a ciggy.

But that was never going to deter Ed Miliband who is getting better by the week at putting the boot into the boot-boy.

Cheered on lustily by those who just months ago had their own leadership doubts, Ed charged Dave with “panic at the pumps” over the sudden decision yesterday to postpone plans to stick an extra 3p tax on fuel just milli-seconds after the Sun had published and backed just such a call from Ed Balls.

The Prime Minister used to take a while letting everything above his collar turn various shades of puce but now he saves time by turning up already sporting the necessary colour.

Indeed had a stove-pipe been fixed to his head he was generating enough steam to give a passing imitation of a stationary Flying Scot, with suitable apologies to anyone offended north of the border.

As Dave tried to shout his way out of his latest embarrassment the man behind it all, Chancellor George, could only sit strategically out of reach down the government’s front bench and join his erstwhile BF in that most wonderfully descriptive verb “to squirm”.

They were joined by Ttransport secretary Justine Greening, who Ed named as just one of the many members of the cabinet who had not been been told in advance of Dave’s conversion over his cornflakes.

That just left the serried ranks of Tory MPs, who only yesterday received a note from HQ telling them how to defend the decision to put the tax up, to explain why it had now joined pasties and caravans on the government’s not-to-do list.

As the two party leaders squared up for the angry contest it would have taken a keen-eyed observer to note an oasis of calm, indeed an oasis of indifference which occupied the seat just to the right of the Prime Minister.

Step forward Deputy PM Nick Clegg who appeared to have sent his body along to PMQs but kept the thinking bit at home to do more useful things.

To be fair to Nick he had spent some time earlier in the day talking about the real challenges facing unemployed young people in the forgotten areas of the land like South Tyneside where jobs just do not exist.

Obviously surveys have been done and those in the North East with the dole as their only career option need help and encouragement and, or so it would appear to the Deputy Prime Minister, a reformed House of Lords.

Whether they talk of little else along the banks of the Tyne is not made fully clear but at least Nick has let it be known that this is where he will be concentrating his attention in the coming months, if not years.

The ungallant suggest that Lib Dem concern over the Lords is based on securing a home for their MPs who expect to be shafted by the electorate come 2015.

But whatever the reason the whole issue has all the makings of the next issue to get the paramedics out early checking on Dave’s blood pressure.

In his haste to get into Downing Street the Prime Minister promised Tory support for Nick’s reform but that was before his party realized the price that had to be paid for power.

With dozens of Tory rebels ready to do down the plan it is now up to Ed M to work out how to play the issue to his advantage; there are points of principle but expect those to be ignored.

Talking of which, Banquo’s ghost was out and about in Kensington.

Wearing his Tony Blair disguise he admitted he would like to be Prime Minister again, but added: “It’s not likely to happen.”

NB. Dave and Ed: He never said never.

Prime Minister David Cameron. Image: 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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