With Gaddafi gone, we must support the re-building of Libya

The UK and France should offer their help in training Libyan officials.

As 42 years of 'one-man rule' in Libya now ends with the death of Gaddafi, the National Transitional [NTC] Council have added momentum for their nation-building role but the task at hand is no small fete for any country, especially one that has no independent public or democratic institutions of any kind.

The expectations of the Libyan people are high, as they should be. Not only have they suffered from decades of despotic rule many civilians also risked their lives and took up arms to help overthrow the regime. The NTC now has to navigate the country towards political legitimacy and build a nation with transparent, independent, inclusive and democratic institutions, and move towards reconciliation in order to meet the demands of the many diverse tribes and clans in Libya.

But, how will they achieve this? Who will their future leaders be and how confident will Libyans be in the capacity of their new leaders to deliver real positive change? We should be under no illusion of how difficult and complex this will be. Even leaders of the NTC, though playing strong and decisive leadership roles in the rebel movement cannot escape their part in the Gadaffi regime - Mustafa Abdul Jalil himself was the Minister for Justice where he imprisoned many dissident Libyans.

Beyond the politics of leadership, there is the harder more day-to-day issue of transitioning towards and actually running a democratic government and forming independent public institutions. Earlier in the Arab Spring I wrote about the strong benefits of institutions like the London School of Economics in providing training for senior Libyan government officials in transparency, good governance and public service delivery. The programme itself was sound but sadly the process followed fell foul of university decision-making boards of avoiding association with regimes with human rights abuses.

Now that Libya must start from scratch in forming an Interim Government, holding democratic elections next year and then actually running a country of six million covering a large land mass, it is perhaps time to re-visit this issue of training, equipping and supporting new leaders and officials in Libya and other countries newly liberated in the Arab Spring. Even the long-established parties of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had to be steered by the Cabinet Secretary and senior civil servants on how to form and deliver a strong, stable coalition government in the UK.

Libya also has the added challenge of ensuring inclusion of the many tribes who were also loyal to Gaddafi as excluding them from a 'new Libya' will only marginalise and disenfranchise them, and risk possible future retaliation.

Just as the Franco-British led NATO push supported the Libyan people in their uprising and while of course Libyans will want overall control of the design and delivery objectives of their future public institutions they will establish, maybe the UK, France and other countries with strong, respected and independent civil services should now also offer their help in training Libyan officials to meet the many challenges of good governance, transparency, accountability and institutional set-up and national public service delivery, ahead of them.

On the up-side, if Libyan leaders and government officials transition well towards democratic governance, institution and nation building they have enough oil resources - tapped and un-tapped - to re-build Libya and distribute the wealth effectively through investing in national education, health, economic and civil society programmes. Lessons could be also learned from successful examples in the region of such of long-term national re-distribution, investment and institution building from countries such as Qatar, to meet the needs and aspirations of the Libyan people.

What is clear is that Libya has many challenges ahead of it and it is the role of everyone, including those who supported the NATO intervention, to now also help the transition towards a democratic, inclusive and well governed Libya.

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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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