Fox's fate remains unclear

His confident performance couldn't disguise how embarrassing the revelations are.

Liam Fox cut a confident figure during his statement to the Commons. He quipped that he was pleased to see "so many new members interested in defence" and, in a calculated show of support, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Eric Pickles all joined him on the frontbench.

But none of this could disguise how embarrassing the facts are for the Defence Secretary. He was forced to admit that he met his self-styled "special adviser" Adam Werrity 40 times in 16 months (18 times on trips overseas and 22 times at the Ministry of Defence), many more than previously thought. For two months, the MoD insisted that Werrity was not taken on any official trips. Fox said that he merely met Werrity "in a social capacity" on "the margins" but he is open to the charge of misleading MPs.

While Fox was on his feet, the MoD sent out the findings of its interim report, which notes "a potential grey area, where personal or party political meetings or events take place during times when the Secretary of State is not accompanied by a Private Secretary; such events can potentially stray into government business." It recommends that in the future the Private Office should "clarify the attendance of people not part of the Ministerial party (other than the spouse/partner of the Minister) at informal or social gatherings."

In a strong and forensic response, Jim Murphy accused Fox of "driving a coach and horses" through the ministerial code. Fox's statement that he allowed "distinctions to be blurred" was a tacit admission that he had breached paragraph 7.1 of the code, which requires ministers to ensure that no conflict arises or is perceived to arise "between their public duties and their private interests". The only issue, Murphy said, was "on how many grounds and on how many occasions" the code was breached.

One key issue is whether Werrity benefited financially from his relationship with Fox. In response to questions on this subject, Fox said that Werritty was "not dependent on any transactional behaviour" at his MoD meetings "to maintain his income".

The Defence Secretary's future now depends entirely on how Cameron responds when he receives the MoD's full review on 21 October.

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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