Why the Tories are cheering Osborne's public sector job cull

The party believes that a smaller public sector will help it win a majority.

Those on the right who are fond of claiming that George Osborne's cuts are almost non-existent should look closely at the latest employment figures. They show that the coalition has cut 432,000 government jobs since the election (with an additional 196,000 reclassified as private sector posts), reducing the public sector workforce to its smallest level since 2001 (see graph). And Osborne isn't done yet. By 2017, according to the most recent OBR forecast, the government will have cut a further 298,000, bringing the total number lost to 730,000. In the words of the usually restrained Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, we are witnessing "a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of the labour market".

What explains this dramatic cull? Fiscal considerations, naturally, play their part. Borrowing for 2012-16 will be around £174.9bn higher than originally expected (see the Bank of England's latest summary of independent forecasts) and Osborne wrongly believes that slashing the state is the best way to reduce it. In an inversion of Keynes, he thinks that if you take care of the deficit, unemployment will take care of itself (joblessness has fallen in recent months, but forecasters expect it to rise to 2.7m next year).  But Osborne, who is both Chancellor and the Conservatives’ chief electoral strategist, also has political considerations in mind. While in opposition, the Tories frequently complained that Labour's "client state" made the election of a Conservative government impossible, so, in office, they have reduced it. As one senior Tory told the Spectator’s James Forsyth, "You create a bigger private sector, you create more Tories."

The polls certainly suggest as much. Data published last month by Ipsos MORI (see graph above) showed that while Labour enjoys a 35-point lead among public sector workers, it trails the Tories by a point among their private sector counterparts (Labour leads by 39 to 35 points among the voluntary sector). Logic says that if you reduce the former group and expand the latter (the OBR forecasts an extra 1.7 million private sector workers by 2017), the Tories will benefit. A smaller public sector means fewer people with a vested interest in high levels of state spending.

The Tories aren't naïve enough to think that they'll immediately benefit from putting Labour voters on the dole, rather they believe that, over time, a labour market in which the public sector plays a smaller role will smooth their path to a majority. Osborne may claim that his cuts are born of necessity, rather than ideology, but, as ever with the Chancellor, politics is on his mind too.

George Osborne plans to cut 730,000 public sector jobs by 2017. 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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