This is a coalition without courage

Forget the double dip: ministers say we can now go faster on the M25 and don't have to recycle as mu

So here it is, then, the legacy of the Coalition taking shape. 80mph motorways, weekly bin collections, 5p plastic bags and making it easier to sack people.

Here is a Government acting like a giant mimsying parish council tinkering at the edges while everything else falls apart. Forget the double dip, our whole nation descending like a spittle-soaked nacho being plunged into an over-ripe bowl of taramasalata; we can go a bit faster on the M25! We can throw away as much as we like! We can pretend to care about the environment! We can get rid of more staff without worrying about their pesky so-called rights!

Neeyow! Stick two fingers up to the so-called speed cameras brigade daring to stop 'otherwise-law-abiding' motorists and put your foot down hard on the gas pedal. Here comes freedom! You might not have a job, but if you did have a job, you'd be able to drive a bit faster, if you could afford a car, which you can't, because there aren't any jobs. But suppose you did have a car: you could go more quickly in it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things?

As well as that, you can throw away as much as you like, because Eric Pickles has found £250million down the back of the settee to reward councils who reinstate weekly bin collections. Hurrah! Of course, you might find that cold comfort if you're not earning enough money to be able to afford anything - let alone to be able to afford to just chuck stuff away without recycling or composting - but suppose you did have money: you could waste more of it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things, either?

Forget your local library closing down. Forget the fact there are no jobs, there is no future, there is a whole generation scratching around for work that isn't there. Forget those hundreds of Navy folk heading for the Jobcentreplus; they'll have the consolation of knowing they can retrain as dustmen and women to fill the literally fives of vacancies that will spring up across the land when we enter the wonderful world of weekly collections. Let's have trained Navy personnel manning the dustcarts and launching wheelie bins as torpedoes as they roar around at 80mph twice a week; it's a perfect solution.

Of course, these are just amuse-bouches to whet our appetites as we await the big decisions at the Conservative Party conference, but they give an indication of what we can expect over the next three and a bit years as the Tories head towards glorious re-election. What we can expect is a mess. On the one hand: mess we inherited, tough decisions, privatise everything, sack everyone. On the other: weekly bin collections, driving a bit faster, possibly having to pay 5p for plastic bags.

A Government that wanted to make really tough decisions and leave a real legacy - as opposed to sacking loads of public sector workers they were going to sack anyway, but having the bonus of blaming the previous Government for the deficit in order to do so - would decrease the speed limit, and get even tougher on recycling targets for councils, in order to reduce emissions and stop waste. But we all know why that won't happen. It won't happen because the Coalition doesn't have any courage. All it has is an agenda to obliterate the state, while chucking a bone to its selfish heartland to ensure it gets served up a second term in office. The question is whether they're going to get away with it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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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