Be liberal, Clegg

The Liberal Democrats cannot belong to a centre-right government and yet insist to supporters that t

I'm sure Nick Clegg's inbox bulges sufficiently with advice without his reading list of suggestions being added to by a Tory activist (that is, a deliverer of leaflets) from Hackney (that is, a deliverer of unread leaflets), but, you know, I'm coming at this from a different angle than most. I'd quite like Nick Clegg to succeed, for one thing, which perhaps gives my advice a different flavour from that of Simon "And We've Just Lost Sheffield, Nick Clegg's Backyard!" Hughes.

I'll get to the advice in a minute. But first: do you know the best thing about Twitter? No, not the superinjunction feeds. Twitter's greatest advantage is that you no longer have to sit through dull-as-ditchwater documentaries, or endure Question Time, to know what the political class are saying to one another; you just scan through the timeline of people who are paid to watch these programmes.

Which is why I know, without having seen it, that the best line in last night's Andrew Rawnsley Channel 4 programme on the coalition came from David Davis, who said: "The Liberal Democrats have got the best seats in the plane, but no parachutes."

I don't quite agree with the imagery. The Liberals do have good seats in the plane, no doubt. But it's not so much that they're not wearing parachutes – or, at least, not just that. It's more that the behaviour of some senior Liberals is akin to the co-pilot coming back into the cabin, mid-flight, opening the aircraft's doors and yelling impotently at the ground 37,000 feet below: "Just cos we're flying this plane doesn't mean we want to go to its destination. We'd really rather it went somewhere much, much further to the left. Look, I've got a flight-plan agreement written last May and everything! D'you hear me?"

The resulting rapid diminution of the distance between ground and aircraft renders the lack of parachutes (not to mention the yelling about preferred destination) a moot point.

I'm not actually a huge fan of coherence in politics: prioritise the human, not the (ideology) machine. But on the axis of coherence, the Liberal Democrats are suffering because they're too close to the 100 per cent incoherent end of the scale. My point is this: you cannot belong to a government of the centre right, but continue to insist to (erstwhile) supporters that you are secretly still on the left, and expect to gain the respect of anyone.

Now, I know what Liberal Democrats will say to this: first, they somehow defy convention and don't belong on that old-fashioned left-right axis ("It's so 20th century, my dear!" Blah, blah). Sorry, but policies do, insofar as any particular policy maps on to a particular point on that axis. (Or its near analogue, the freedom/equality scale. Do you want to build a policy machine that will make every school the same? Or do you want to let thousands of different people open schools and let parents choose for themselves?).

Second, if they admit to belonging on any political axis at all, they'll say that it's a special place with its own values, quite distinct from those found in the Labour or Tory tribes. But nearly every policy debate within both the "old" parties can be seen as a discussion between a liberal and a conservative point of view. There's nothing special about the adjective "liberal" when it's used by someone wearing a bright yellow rosette.

So this is my advice to Mr Clegg. If you continue to invent dividing lines between your party and ours, and shout loudly about those differences, you'll continue to fail. All dividing lines are fiction. (Remember Gordon Brown? Dividing lines were his sole political tool, his entire tactic to insist that all truth, and goodness, and reason, were synonymous with his name.) And what's more, with a coalition government, voters are more aware of this than ever.

If you want to succeed, however, then turn your back on the social-democratic wing of your party and emphasise your inner liberal. It is that instinct which most aligns you with a large number of Tories – and it's not a different liberal instinct from ours because you wear a Lib Dem badge and we wear a Tory one (which is why, for example, if you decide to prevent the election of police commissioners you won't be scoring a point over the Tories which will be congratulated by a grateful electorate; you will only be underlining your current incoherence).

You are more likely to be successful the more you work with, and not against, Conservatives. This isn't a message that either Mr Huhne or Dr Cable will want to hear. But that brings me to my last bit of advice, to underline your commitment to the coalition: get a proper cabinet job. Remove Mr Huhne and Dr Cable from the government, and replace them with yourself and David Laws. Show Dr Cable that it is not only Tories who are capable of being ruthless in pursuit of success.

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates' list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he's @graemearcher.

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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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