CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from the Sunday papers.

1. Don't destroy our universities. Our future depends on them (Observer)

With knowledge-intensive work growing ever more important, Will Hutton argues that the government must rethink its stance on university cuts. The inevitable further budget reductions will cause deep damage.

2. The new university challenge is to unravel Labour's mess (Sunday Times)

Minette Marrin looks at Labour's legacy to education -- a disastrous combination of inflation and devaluation. The Blair-Brown years have demonstrated that it is quite easy to bring down standards.

3. For Cable as chancellor, vote Labour (Independent on Sunday)

John Rentoul explores the possibilities of a hung parliament. With such a clunky mechanism, the Lib Dems need Brown to do well if they are to enter a power-sharing deal.

4. Budget 2010: David Cameron prepares for 48-hour trench warfare (Sunday Telegraph)

Labour's last-ditch Budget will herald an artillery battle over Britain's future, says Matthew d'Ancona. Cameron and George Osborne must be honest and detailed in their responses.

5. Do the right thing before you go, Alistair Darling (Sunday Times)

Dominic Lawson agrees that the Chancellor is preparing Wednesday's Budget statement with an eye to posterity. He is a mild-mannered man; if he were more abrasive, he might harangue the public-sector unions picketing the Treasury.

6. Why all these emails from Barack Obama make me feel cheap (Observer)

Andrew Rawnsley says that the internet is undermining old-fashioned campaign models and killing conventional forms of propaganda.

7. Cut off the cash and Israel might behave (Independent on Sunday)

Binyamin Netanyahu is undermining US interests, says Avi Shlaim. The sooner Barack Obama makes his support conditional, the better.

8. Care for the eldely: One question that all our politicians are agreed on (Sunday Telegraph)

Alasdair Palmer wonders how we will fund care for the elderly over the next 20 years -- neither Labour nor the Conservatives has suggested a viable way to fill the funding shortfall.

9. Saying sorry is not enough. The Church has got to change (Observer)

The paper's editorial says Pope Benedict XVI's letter to the Catholics of Ireland was inadequate, and adds to the woes of those his Church has wronged.

10. Health-care reform enters its endgame (Independent on Sunday)

Failure on health-care reform will not break Obama's presidency, says the leading article, but it could alter the political calculus.

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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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