Ed Balls declares: Labour’s cuts would have been too savage

Balls is right. Labour’s spending plans would have meant cuts of 20 per cent.

The coalition may be planning to cut all non-ring-fenced budgets by 25 per cent but it's worth remembering that Labour's cuts wouldn't have been much less savage. The Brown/Darling pledge to halve the deficit by 2014 would have seen cuts of 20 per cent to all non-protected departments.

So Ed Balls's declaration that this promise was a mistake deserves to be taken seriously. It's a more credible position than those campaigning against "Tory cuts" while refusing to accept that this means a slower pace of deficit reduction.

Balls told the BBC:

I always accepted collective responsibility but at the time, in 2009, I thought the pace of deficit reduction through spending cuts was not deliverable, I didn't think it could have been done.

This leaves open the possibility of a more even split between spending cuts and tax rises (George Osborne currently envisages a 77:23 ratio, Darling favoured 67:33). After all, during the last big fiscal tightening undertaken by a Conservative government, Ken Clarke split the pain 50:50 between tax rises and spending cuts. But Balls goes on to suggest that major cuts shouldn't take place until the economy has recovered fully:

We'll have to wait and see where we are once this huge risky experiment has been tried on our economy by the Conservatives and the Liberals. I can't start pre-empting how things will be in a few years' time but, you know, in my department I set out a third of a billion pounds of cuts, so obviously I'm not unafraid to make difficult decisions.

With confirmation today that growth in the first quarter of this year was just 0.3 per cent, the cautionary principle suggests that dramatic cuts should not take place until the economy is out of intensive care.

Balls, like some of his rivals for the Labour leadership, has belatedly adopted a clear line on the deficit. David Miliband has let it be known that he still supports the original pledge to halve the deifict by 2014, while Andy Burnham has come out against the coalition's absurd pledge to ring-fence the £110bn NHS budget.

I've heard remarkably little from either Ed Miliband or Diane Abbott on the deficit, but perhaps Balls's move will stir them into life.

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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