Personal vendetta above party loyalty

Peter Watt's new book gives further evidence of disunity in Brown's government -- but why now?

Another day, another former Labour insider confessing their true feelings about Gordon Brown . . . and in the process potentially damaging what election hopes there are left for the party.

The Mail on Sunday today dedicates six pages to its first extract from Inside Out: My Story of Betrayal and Cowardice at the Heart of New Labour, a book by the former general secretary of the Labour Party Peter Watt.

Watt discusses the election that never was, claiming that limousines were circling parliament to take MPs on the campaign trail when Brown made a U-turn live on TV.

At this point, stories of disunity at the heart of the Brown administration are nothing new. But, in a fresh spin, Watt draws the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander -- who had been mentored and backed by Brown -- into the intrigue. Apparently Alexander said of the election:

The truth is, Peter, we have spent ten years working with this guy, and we don't actually like him. We have always thought that the longer the British public had to get to know him, the less they would like him as well.

Watt quotes him at another point saying:

You'd imagine that after ten years of waiting for this, and ten years complaining about Tony, we would have some idea of what we are going to do, but we don't seem to have any policies. For God's sake, Harriet's helping write the manifesto!

Clearly, there are fundamental and increasingly bitter divisions within New Labour, as last week's failed coup attempt illustrated with painful clarity. I can understand that people might feel desperate to speak out -- or I would understand, had they done so a year ago, or even six months ago. Acting on the cusp of a general election strikes me as showing all the concern for the potential fallout of a toddler smashing its toys in a tantrum. That said, it's worth noting that a poll for the Sunday Telegraph published yesterday showed that Labour, weirdly, had gained a point despite the failed coup.

It makes more sense for Watt to act now than it did for Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt last week: he says he was treated unfairly when he was forced to take the blame for the "Donorgate" scandal and resign, so he obviously wants to inflict maximum damage.

And yet, call me idealistic, but isn't this a little petty? Hoon, Hewitt and Watt are all members of the Labour Party, and were once at the very centre of it. With a general election in the offing, is a personal vendetta against Gordon Brown really more important than salvaging that election?

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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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