Would a pigeon be a better chancellor than George Osborne?

Ten chances to change course, ten chances blown.

Earlier today, somewhat facetiously, I wrote:

It's weird to know – like, be absolutely certain – that I would be a better chancellor than Osborne.

The point of that is not, by any means, to claim extraordinary economic competency for myself. It is rather that at every possible moment, George Osborne has been presented with two options – hold the course, or switch to Plan B/A-/whatever – and picked the exact wrong one.

Let's look at the constraints Osborne has. It would be weird for him to just change policy out of nowhere, so it has to be in reaction to some event, or at a time when such a change would be expected. Since the emergency budget in June 2010, when the bulk of the Government's policy was laid out, he has had two budgets, two autumn statements, and an emergency spending review, at all of which he could have changed course (which, for the avoidance of doubt, would be switching from austerity). Five blown opportunities there.

But there have also been five negative quarters since Osborne took charge – Q4 2010, Q2 & Q4 2011, and Q1 & Q2. Each one of those will have been a wake-up-call that not everything was going to plan. Yes, even the ones blamed on the snow.

So that's ten opportunities to pick the right course. If you tossed a coin, rolled a die, or asked a pigeon to peck at two keys marked "plan a" and "plan b" in exchange for kernels of corn, you would have expected it to pick the right option five times. The chance of picking the wrong one all ten times in a row, like Osborne did, is just 0.1 per cent. 

So 99.9 times out of one hundred, our hungry avian chancellor would have led to a stronger British economy than our actual one. Although to be fair, the pigeon wouldn't look as good in white tie.

Man vs pigeon: who ever wins, we lose.

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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