After we hung ’em

Twelve immediate reflections on the coalition.

1. David Cameron is the adroit driver of the coalition. He proposed an offer that the weakened Lib Dems couldn't refuse. His own strategy is to replace Tory nationalism with a 21st-century version of One-Nation "Whig" Conservatism, one that can appeal to urban and suburban multicultural Britain. (See my article "The end of Thatcherism" at OurKingdom.) Don't blame Nick; Labour wasn't interested in changing.

2. Nick Clegg's speech today confirms his commitment to the "modern liberty" agenda of rolling back the intrusive, database state. It is a tremendously positive outcome of the coalition agreement and a framework of principle that helps bind it together. Tragically, Labour were positive enemies of progress in this respect and don't understand what has hit them. Just because the BBC refuses to cover an issue doesn't mean it is not important.

3. But the coalition smacks of an attempt to create a new establishment (male, public school, enlightened) to replace the turpitude of New Labour's political class. While it is wonderful on liberty, noises about appointing swarms of new lords suggest an underlying attempt to preserve the old order. The expenses scandal isn't over yet.

4. The Tory aim is to win the next election outright. The Lib Dems need a strategy that will leave them stronger not weaker when they leave the coalition. If, as he told James Macintyre, Nick Clegg wants to be prime minister, he has to be better at playing chess than David Cameron.

5. The Tories will be stupid to tell voters we can decide on our electoral system and then refuse to permit us the choice of a significantly different one. They can't "restore trust" by spending millions on a referendum designed not to trust us. The Lib Dems will be hammered, too, if they go along with this. A proportional choice should be included in the referendum. Liberty can only be safeguarded by democracy but democracy is the coalition's political fault line.

6. A new generation that grew up under the spin of New Labour, and for which the wit and facility of the web are second nature, is starting to mobilise against being fitted up by half-measures that preserve the old regime. The demand for fair votes has taken to the streets under the colour of suffrage and added a new dimension to UK politics. The purple revolution may pause for breath but it is likely to grow -- it is an irresistible claim, not a protest.

7. Britain is much better in many ways thanks to New Labour, but the new leaders will need not just to admit they were wrong on Iraq, but explain why they persisted in being wrong when so many of us, including the Lib Dems, were right. A dishonest electoral system gave them many more seats than they deserved, but this will be corrected and they have no chance of expanding the support they need until they rethink what kind of a state they offer voters, and how we can be sure it will be both politically and economically honest, as well as creating policies that don't need borrowed money. If, like the Compass "A New Hope" conference sponsored by the New Statesman, Labour ignores the implications of its database state, then its cause is already hopeless and it will lose the next election.

8. The desire to preserve the Union and prevent a boost for the SNP in Scotland was an important motive for Cameron's offer of a coalition. Otherwise, the government would have had one MP, rather than 12, from north of the border. But its effect might be to destroy the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament elections next year. The national question is a burning fuse that might be slowed but can't be extinguished.

9. The coalition agreement stipulates that there will be a report on what to do about the West Lothian Question, that is to say, the unfairness of the present arrangements for the English (England returned a Tory majority). The official answer to the West Lothian Question has always been not to ask it. Once England enters the mix as an acknowledged grievance, stand back!

10. The row over whether parliament can be forced to rewrite the fundamental rule that if a government loses the confidence of the House it has to resign shows that the British constitution's famed flexibility has been tested to destruction. To put it politely, the UK's uncodified constitution is broken beyond repair. The coalition won't whistle it back together again. This could provide a way for Labour to be more democratic in its strategy than the Liberal-Conservative government.

11. The "Portillo moment" of election night, signalling that something historic had happened, was Caroline Lucas's victory. The Greens have a politics of the totality, linking the economy and our environment to our democracy. If "new politics" means anything, it means green. The Greens need to grow.

12. Will the dire state of the deficit and the coming cuts be used to preserve the dominance of the City and its economic system? Or is that system so obviously dysfunctional and deep cuts so likely to provoke rioting that the Conservatives (for such they are) will seek a "fair" way out of the mess to preserve the social order? No one understands what is going to happen to capitalism on a world scale. All we know is that the UK is exceptionally exposed, not least thanks to the policies of Brown and Balls, and there is a fear that something dreadful awaits us just over the horizon.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom. Read his original article for the New Statesman, "Hang 'em high with this election", here.

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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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