Mark Serwotka: Why Ed Miliband is right to speak at Durham today

We need a united opposition to coalition policies that are wrecking Britain.

Today I will be speaking at the 128th Durham Miners' Gala, a profound and moving event that continues to attract crowds in the tens of thousands and keeps the spirit of working class solidarity and unity alive.

I will be saying that it has never been more important for the labour movement to be united than in these extraordinary times in which we are living.

Youth unemployment is the highest on record, tens of billions of pounds of public spending is being cut – including massive job cuts, a public sector pay freeze and attacks on pensions – and unemployed and disabled people are receiving unparalleled abuse.

We have to be united to oppose this most vicious attack on everything our movement stands for: protecting the most vulnerable; providing decent jobs for all who can work, and a decent standard of living for those that cannot; providing decent public services that serve the public good, not private profit; and defending working class communities through strong trade unions and community organisations.

That unity is built around opposing this Tory-led government’s attacks on the people we represent.

So when they force people into strike action, we back those brave men and women out on strike – whether over public sector pensions, whether it’s cleaners, Remploy workers or the heroic Spanish miners.

In the 1980s, miners in the north east and elsewhere struggled heroically for jobs and justice. Their opponents were a Tory government and the Murdoch press.

Thanks to the campaigning MP Tom Watson – with whom I will be sharing a platform at Durham – and others, we've taken a chunk out of the Murdoch empire.

Now we need to do the same to this Tory government – a government that last year gave us lower growth and a sharper increase in unemployment than in the Eurozone.

This is no time for prevarication. When they're dismantling the welfare state, we oppose them. When they're forcing families out of their homes through housing benefit cuts, we oppose them. When they freeze pay and try to introduce poverty pay in the regions, we oppose them.

Bob Diamond walked away last week with a £2m pay off – more than 30,000 times what the 2.6m people on the dole will get this week.

The financial crisis which began in the boardrooms and in the stock exchanges is being paid for by those in the care homes and on the dole queues.

Cuts, austerity, call it what you like. It is the wrong solution. Wrong because it isn't working, it is damaging our economy, and wrong because of the misery it is causing in our communities.

The gala shows the labour movement at our best, and I welcome Ed Miliband's decision to speak this year. We have to take the spirit of Durham across the country.

We must be united: in our trade unions, in our communities, in our town halls and in parliament. We must be united and we must fight these cuts every inch of the way.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

Trade union demonstrators outside parliament on 26 March 2011. Photograph: Getty
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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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