Why Vince should be in charge of our creative industries

Responsibiliy for the creative industries should be transferred to the business department.

Having spent two weeks glued to the Olympics, I am as anxious as the next Brit that we don’t lose the impetus and continue the fabulous development of sport in Britain. But the last two weeks have demonstrated another area at which we beat the world hands down – one that will need just as much attention as our sporting endeavours if we are to continue our world beating performance.

The closing ceremony was a paean to Britain's second largest industrial sector - the creative industries. We celebrated music, the performing arts, fashion, architecture, and design, all of which we are world leaders in. Add in film and video - who will ever forget Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony - and TV and radio - the BBC has had praise heaped on it from around the world - and you understand that both ceremonies are a demonstration of why the creative industries will be key to any economic recovery. Indeed, this is recognised at the highest levels of government - Vince Cable made a speech stating as much just a few weeks ago:

We should be proud of how our creative industries have meshed with technology and engineering to produce products that Britain and the rest of the world wants to buy. British designers from Brunel and Burners-Lee to James Dyson and Vivienne Westwood have been admired around the world for generations. They have all contributed, not only to Britain's reputation as an innovative nation, but also to our economic growth.

Yet strangely, the creative industries do not fall under the purview of Dr. Cable. Because they are managed, not by the Department of Business, but…by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

And this seems a touch anachronistic. I am sure the minister with direct responsibility for the sector, Ed Vaizey, is doing a fine job. But the decision to put responsibility for an industry worth around 6% of GDP and employing more than two million people in the UK under DCMS control does smack of politicians having it marked down as, well, a touch fluffy.

Well, it's not. It's world leading, profitable, attracting business from the all the fastest developing economies in the world (who recognise our pre eminent skills in this area) and vital to the recovery. Shouldn’t it be treated as such and given a home in the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation? After all, - Business, Skills, Innovation - it seems to tick all those boxes.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.

Business Secretary Vince Cable arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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