Balls's new strategy is a political masterstroke

His commitment to long-term fiscal discipline strengthens the case for short-term stimulus.

Ed Balls's speech isn't until this afternoon (we'll be live blogging his speech from 12pm) but it's been leading the news all morning. And with good reason. The shadow chancellor is preparing to unveil a new strategy which will see him maintain the case for short-term stimulus but commit to long-term fiscal discipline. Balls will promise to meet the two pledges set out by George Osborne - to eliminate the structural deficit and to ensure a falling debt-to-GDP ratio - and will announce that these will be monitored by the Office for Budget Responsibility (this morning, for the first time, he said that setting up the OBR was "the right thing to do".) In addition, he will promise that any windfall from the sale of state-owned bank shares (estimated by the OBR at £3.4bn) will be used exclusively to pay down the deficit and not to cut taxes.

Balls's smart calculation is that these promises will provide him with the political cover necessary to make the case for renewed stimulus in the form of a temporary cut in VAT and other measures (he has promised to set out a five-point plan for restoring growth in his speech). As Keynes put it: "The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury." This is an economic truth that entirely eludes George Osborne. The eurozone crisis has demonstrated precisely why austerity is self-defeating. As Balls argued this morning, there is no reason to believe that the markets would panic if Britain slowed the pace of its deficit reduction programme, not least while the UK can borrow at near historic lows. "The markets know that if economies aren't growing, then you get into a vicious circle and your debt dynamics can actually make a debt unsustainable," he said.

Osborne will reply that Balls's answer to a debt crisis is always more debt. But his own strategy has reduced growth, increased unemployment and, consequently, slowed the pace of deficit reduction (Osborne has already been forced to announce an extra £46bn of borrowing). As the self-defeating nature of Osborne's approach becomes clearer, voters will look for an alternative. Balls is providing it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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