Boris rolls out the same old tricks

The London mayor’s campaign against Ken Livingstone is nothing we haven’t seen before.

It's over three years since Boris Johnson first ran against Ken Livingstone for Mayor of London, but his new attack website suggests that almost nothing has changed in his approach to fighting the former mayor.

His old criticisms of Ken from 2008 are not so much trotted out as dragged out, nobbled and lifeless, on to the race course.

Livingstone's support for the unions, controversial left-wing politicians and Islam are all limped out, with multiple links to posts by Andrew Gilligan completing the Wadley-era Evening Standard feel.

To the surprise of approximately zero Londoners, we are told that Ken is a fan of Hugo Chávez, various Muslim leaders and the occasional junket. Who knew?

In fact, give or take a couple of references to Press TV and the fascinating subject of internal Labour Party politics in Tower Hamlets, the entire website could have been written back in 2008.

In this alternate universe, the past three years have never happened. And so, while Ken is attacked for his large numbers of press officers and his huge pay-offs to "cronies", Boris's large numbers of press officers and his huge pay-off to one of his own "cronies" fall down the memory hole.

Because the truth is that, while Boris campaigned against Livingstone's formula for being Mayor of London, it is a formula to which, by and large, he has kept.

So, Ken's international embassies, or "Kenbassies", as the Tories called them, have largely stayed, as have the travel concessions for young people that the Tories deemed so unacceptable just a few years ago.

Ken's staged battles with his own party leadership have been replaced with Boris's staged battles with Tory chiefs. And Ken's outrageous jokes and comments about totalitarian leaders have been replaced with Boris's outrageous jokes and comments about other totalitarian leaders.

Thus, in some ways, the antiquated feel of Boris's campaign website is entirely in keeping with the antiquated feel of Boris's mayoralty. Where Ken led, Boris has largely followed. And after almost three years, Boris has failed to point London in any discernibly new direction.

In the absence of such a new direction, no volume of attack websites will convince anybody that four more years of either candidate is anything to get too scared about.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the mayoralty.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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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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