PMQs sketch: Cameron's awkward half hour

Even before it began you knew that Dave was not only without a paddle but probably without a creek.

The high moral ground in the House of Commons has been somewhat harder to climb in recent years, particularly for those who claimed it as a second home.

But it was suddenly back within the reach of all yesterday thanks to the News of the World for doing what it does best -- exposing a scandal at the heart of the establishment: itself.

In one fell swoop MPs shook off three years of being accused of having their hands in their constituents pockets to unite in condemnation of at least some of their accusers.

Indeed even before the Prime Minister arrived for PMQs you could hear them sharpening the guillotine, giving the wheels of the tumbril a bit of a polish and getting their high horses out of the stables.

There is nothing quite like a common enemy to unite MPs of all parties and as enemies go there cannot be many more common than the News of the World.

Could it only be days since the luckiest if them had quaffed champagne at the summer party of News International and shook hands, if lucky, with the NoW's owner Rupert Murdoch -- not to mention his presence on earth, or at least London, the flame-haired CEO Rebekah Brooks?

All of this was to be out behind them in defence of the people's outrage over phone-hacking, bungling by the police and general lying to all and sundry.

Even before PMQs began you knew that Dave was not only without a paddle but probably without a creek.

It was against that background that Ed Miliband knew he was onto a winner even before he got to his feet .This was particularly helpful because before Rupert rode to the rescue the Labour leader had been having another lean week.

Having had one survey which said 25 per cent of the population thought he was his brother David another put his personal rating among voters as lower than that of Ian Duncan Smith. That finding so worried Tory Party managers at the time that IDS was dumped.

Ed therefore could afford to look relieved as he asked the Prime Minister to "speak for the people" and agree to an inquiry into the allegations of phone-hacking, which have now spread from the rich and famous to the ordinary and vulnerable.

The Prime Minister, only hours back from a derailed PR trip to Afghanistan, trumped Ed by immediately promising two inquiries -- one into the press and its culture, and the second into the scale of backhanders to the police.

But even as Dave and Ed were doing their Mr Statesman performances and the House was doing its ritual braying in approval, all knew this was not why we were here.

As silkily as he could Ed said surely the BSkyB take-over by Rupert should now be referred elsewhere since the hacking scandal raised all sorts of issues.

Dave knew it was coming and knew he had no answer, or at least not one that anyone on his side had managed to come up with in the previous 12 hours.

His voice rose in direct proportion to his skin colour as he fumbled his way through all he had been given to say so far. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was acting in a "quasi-judicial" way over the BskyB bid he blustered.

At this the Commons camera cut to the elfin figure of Mr Hunt who was sitting, one assumes quasi-judicially, just down the front bench from the PM with the nervous look of someone to whom the parcel has just been passed as the music stops.

Now that he had the PM rocking with the punches Ed moved in again, this time demanding Dave support his call for CEO Rebekah to go.

This is a tricky one for the PM since she and he are close friends and some say he helped persuade Rupert to keep her on earlier in the year.

Ed knows all that, but has the added insurance of not being far enough up the food chain during Labour's time in office to get to know the Murdoch clan as closely as Tony did.

Having failed to get News International's endorsement for his own election he has nothing to lose, at the moment, from taking them on.

By now Dave had the pallor of someone with a serious claim against the tanning salon he had just left. George Osborne, usually his spare back-bone during PMQs looked equally lost, and Deputy PM Nick Clegg could only sit back and enjoy another week out of the firing line.

The Prime Minister managed to non-answer the question about friend Rebekah's future in a way which left everyone, probably including her, confused.

But the agony and the ecstasy was still not over because Ed had still to mention the "C" word: Coulson, Andy.

It is six months since Andy quit as Dave's Alistair Campbell because the phone-hacking inquiry was apparently putting him off his stroke. It is now alleged that Andy, former editor of the newspaper that dare not now speak its name, may have played some part in transferring funds from the coffers of the NoW to the pension plans of certain policemen.

"Didn't Dave regret taking him on?" asked Ed. "You're not kidding," Dave didn't say.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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