‘Big society’ – where’s the opposition?

The Opposition needs its own big idea to combat the "big society", or it will be the end of the post

On his "hard road back to power", Ed Miliband will have to forge a powerful strategy to counteract the "big society".

The "big society" is a slippery and seductive political story. It is all things to all people, with a lot of cuddly language about empowering citizens, sharing responsibility and devolving decisions.

Beneath its seductive language, however, the "big society" aims to shift responsibility from democratic government to "civil society", and to replace paid with unpaid labour on a massive scale.

Functions that have been funded through taxes and carried out by publicly owned organisations for more than sixty years are to be transferred to charities and businesses. If implemented as intended, together with the public spending cuts, it will mark the end of the post-war welfare settlement.

The Government's narrative is strong on "empowerment" but silent on equality. Capacity, access and time are all distributed unequally across the population, according to income, wealth, class, gender, ethnicity, geography and age.

There is nothing in the plans for a "big society" to ensure that everyone has a fair chance to participate or benefit.

The small, local groups that are supposed to be the life and soul of the "big society" are already painfully squeezed as council grants and contracts are scaled back. Now, thanks to the cuts, they are expected to ratchet up their activities.

Most of us would agree that the welfare state is due for an overhaul. We need a new social settlement that is genuinely progressive. By that I mean one that will narrow inequalities, promote social mobility, give everyone, not just the better-off, more control over their lives and destinies, build a culture of solidarity, and be sustainable in the long term. The "big society" offers none of these.

A progressive alternative would start with a government that guarantees essential services for all, according to need, not the ability to pay.

The role of the state will have to shift from directly providing most services to enabling others to do so. This may sound like the current rhetoric, but a new, progressive settlement would go well beyond anything the "big society" can deliver. In a nutshell, "enabling" should mean building strong, enduring support systems for of small, locally based organisations so that they can flourish freely.

It should involve promoting inclusive participation in local decision-making and activities. And it should develop co-production (a partnership between the "providers" and "users" of services) as the standard way of getting things done -- through charities and businesses as well as what remains of the public sector.

The new settlement will have to address the social consequences of tackling climate change. In the interests of sustainability, it should replace the largely curative approach of the post-war welfare state with a determined focus on prevention, to stop needs arising, recurring or intensifying.

This will require a big shift in spending priorities, but will ultimately get better results for citizens, reduce demand for essential services and keep costs down. Can the Opposition build a distinctive, alternative vision with a robust range of policies for putting it into practice?

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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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