Boris gets off the bus

As a bold act of redistribution it is hard to beat. Oh, hang on . . .

Boris Johnson will see out New Year's Eve 2009 convinced that he has made it as cheap as possible. London's official fireworks display, which under the "profligate" Ken Livingstone regime lasted ten whole minutes, will be reduced to a mere seven and a half minutes.

Free rail travel will be scrapped, and Boris will enter 2010 having scrimped several hundred thousand pounds off the mayor's budget.

This is all part of Boris's drive to "ease the burden" of City Hall on taxpayers. However, as Boris counts his pennies, the rest of the capital will wake to the largest set of multimillion-pound fare rises brought in by a London mayor.

Boris will increase single bus fares by 20 per cent, with "hard-pressed families" paying hundreds of pounds more a year. And while the average household has saved just 11p a week from Boris's tax freeze, Boris will take hundreds of millions of pounds extra in fare revenue during his term.

These rises will help close the financial black hole created by the removal of the western extension of the congestion charge, but will also go towards much-needed improvements to the Underground. They will also help fund initiatives such as his bike hire scheme.

But while some of the extra burden may be necessary, it is how Boris has chosen to share the burden that is most revealing.

Boris will protect those Londoners most able to pay by freezing the price of almost all season tickets for the year. Meanwhile, he will raise single bus fares by a third from the level he inherited. Overall, bus users will be hit hardest by the rises.

As a bold act of redistribution, it is hard to beat, with Boris asking those least able to pay to subsidise those most able to pay.

This is reportedly a worry for the Conservative leadership: David Cameron's aides are quoted as saying that Boris is "making us look bad". But although Cameron is keen not to scare off voters before an election, Boris is merely doing what most Conservatives would have expected him to do once in power.

Ken Livingstone famously had a policy of shifting people out of their own vehicles and on to public transport. For a self-proclaimed cycle- and car-loving libertarian, this was always going to be anathema.

To shift the balance, Boris plans to raise fares, halve the size of the congestion charge zone, reduce the level of bus subsidy and pour millions into making London the "electric car capital of the world".

Whether masses of Londoners will ever follow Boris's electric dreams remains to be seen.

But while the mayor can easily afford to take part in his "electric car revolution", for most Londoners the real revolution will be an ever-increasing burden from Boris in fares.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the mayoralty.

 

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Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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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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