PMQs review: Cameron flounders

Miliband has so far set the agenda on News International. A visibly flustered Cameron did little to

The accepted wisdom this week has been that the phone hacking crisis has allowed Ed Miliband to find his voice as leader of the opposition, and this was confirmed at today's PMQs.

Miliband was calm and confident, while David Cameron looked increasingly harried and flustered.

Miliband opened by asking whether Rebekah Brooks should resign -- an awkward point for Cameron given his well-documented personal friendship with her. His response was that she was "right to resign" and that this should have been accepted (according to some reports, she offered to resign). A huge positive for Miliband in this matter is that he is relatively "clean" when it comes to social relationships with the Murdoch clan - much more so than his brother, David, who is close to Elisabeth Murdoch and her husband Matthew Freud.

A second significant weak point for Cameron - and one that was raised repeatedly - is "the catastrophic error of judgement" he made in hiring Andy Coulson. Cameron repeated his defence that in this country you are "innocent until proven guilty". He added that he hired Coulson on the basis of assurances that he had not broken the law -- the same assurances made to police and a select committee. "If these assurances turn out not to be true then it's not just that he shouldn't have worked in government, but that he should face the full force of the law."

His discomfort on the issue was evident in his snarky response to Labour MP Rushanara Ali: "As I said before she wrote her question, or had it written..." As ever, Cameron falls back on nastiness when he is floundering.

Cameron's decision not to appear at this afternoon's debate on phone-hacking has also weakened his position. He indicated to Miliband last night that he would reply in person to the Labour leader - which in itself shows how nervous No 10 is that Cameron be left behind on the issue, as it is unusual for a Prime Minister to reply to an opposition day motion.

The fact that he will now not be present for the debate (Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, will respond in his place) gave Miliband some easy shots. "I look forward to debating this with the Leader of the House," he said. Cameron's only response was: "I think we should focus on the substance."

In moving early this weekend to condemn Rupert Murdoch and call for the BSkyB bid to be dropped, Miliband set the agenda, and Cameron knows it. He did little to gain back that lead today.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496