Foot's finest hour

The former Labour leader's courageous stand against appeasement.

In addition to being a great parliamentarian, Michael Foot was a brilliant essayist and polemicist. I first discovered his writing in the form of his book Guilty Men, a coruscating attack on the pro-appeasement faction of the Tory party.

Foot co-wrote the book with the former Liberal MP Frank Cook and the Conservative Peter Howard under the pseudonym Cato. It was published by Victor Gollancz, founder of the Left Book Club, shortly after Winston Churchill took over as prime minister in July 1940. The "guilty men" of the title included such figures as the then prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the lord chancellor, John Simon.

The irony, rarely noted by Conservative admirers of Churchill, is that had it not been for left-wingers such as Foot, Churchill would almost certainly never have become prime minister. As Foot later recalled:

Churchill, on his entry into the Commons, was greeted with loud Labour and Liberal cheers, but with almost total silence on his own side. So deeply ingrained was the subservience to Chamberlain among the men who still retained a parliamentary majority. This fact was quickly blotted from the public memory.

The moral clarity of Foot's attack on those who believed it was possible for Britain to compromise with Nazism made this his finest hour.

His principled anti-fascism later led him to defy many of his comrades and support both the Falklands war and the Nato intervention in Kosovo. He had little patience with those on the left who denounced the rescue of the province from Slobodan Milosevic as an act of western imperialism.

This self-described "peacemonger" turned out to have a lot to teach the left about the need to intervene against tyranny. In the coming days, Foot's contribution to this cause deserves to be recognised more widely than it has been.

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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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