Back to the 70s? If only

Far from being a blighted decade, the 70s marked the height of progressive politics.

Is Britain heading back to the toxic mix of politics and business seen in the 1970s?, asks Kamal Ahmed in the Daily Telegraph.

Not since the 1970s has there been such an "anti-business" mood in politics and among the general public. This is the first election since that blighted decade when talk of "fat cats" and "taxing wealth" are legitimate election issues. Some might say "What do you expect?", but I think we may come to regret an over-correction following the events of the autumn of 2008.

If only it was true that Britain was heading back to the 1970s!

If Ahmed was right, we'd expect to see at least one of our main parties advocate the extension of public ownership. Instead all three promise even more privatisation. We'd also expect to see calls for a new Wealth Tax and for the top rate of tax to be far more than 50%.

Far from being a 'blighted' decade, the 70s marked the zenith of progressive politics, as I argued here.

Not only that but the decade gave us the best television comedies (think Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, Rising Damp and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), the best tv drama (think Upstairs Downstairs, The Onedin Line, When the Boat Comes In, and Lillie), and the best football, (think Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, Holland in 1974 and Argentina in 1978).

It was a great decade and we even had the heroics of Red Rum too.

But neoliberals like Kamal Ahmed hate the 1970s because capital was not in complete control. Half the world had ditched capitalism all together, while most countries outside of the communist bloc operated a truly mixed economy, where the interests of ordinary people came before the interests of multinationals and Goldman Sachs.

The task facing true progressives today is not to turn the clock further forward, but to turn it back- to a decade when things were immeasurably better for the majority of people on the planet than they are today.

This post first appeared on Neil Clark's blog

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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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