In search of the "Responsibility Society"

Can we give substance to Ed Miliband's vision?

Two events defined this summer's politics. The shocking revelations of phone hacking at News International and the riots in English cities. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has tried relentlessly to connect the two, arguing that both reveal a cuture of social irresponsibility that neither the current government nor their New Labour predecessors have done anything near enough to challenge. Britain needs a new ethic, Miliband has argued, one focused on mutual responsibility and shared concern, and the only way it can be fostered is through a politics that is not afraid to tackle the vast powers of vested interest.

Ed Miliband is surely right in essence. But, as he is only too aware, both his diagnosis and his prescribed remedy requires more detailed development if it is to provide British left politics with a genuinely new direction. In my essay for the IPPR, "Everyday Democracy: Taking the Centre-Left Beyond State and Market", I aim to start this development.

We need to begin by understanding the root problem that Miliband is striving to identify. This problem lies, I believe, in the dominance of an overly "transactional" mindset in British society. Too many of us, in too many settings, look on our fellow citizens either as problems to be avoided or as instruments to our own gain. Big businesses talk about their workforce as "human resources". Civil servants in Whitehall prepare projects and "initiatives" with no attempt to consult with the people their plans will affect. Even in our families, the pressures and stresses of work sometimes make us look at our partners, parents and children more as things to be managed rather than people to be treasured.

It is this mindset that rips at the core of our society. Sometimes, it can make us aggressive and excessively independent, believing that we owe nothing to our neighbours, co-workers or families. In this way, we pursue our own good relentlessly and ruthlessly. At other times, it can make us feel isolated and vulnerable, with no-one to turn to in times of need, no network of support to draw on. Loneliness is already closely related to the dramatic rise in chronic mental health problems across our society.

The only effective response to this mindset is the development of new cross-community relationships in our everyday lives. That is the way that people can begin to deepen an ethic of mutual responsibility that challenges the transactional outlook. Such relationships themselves will only emerge when we radically expand the opportunities we have to interact with each other in a constructive way, in the workplace, our communities and in our own homes. That means protecting and enriching our common spaces, providing people with the living wages they need to be able to spend time with their families and friends, and transforming our public services so that they draw the users and producers of services into continual dialogue with each other.

This is the reason that so many centre-left politicians, including Miliband himself, were so engaged by the academic arguments of so-called Blue Labour earlier this year. Its appeal for Miliband is not just intellectual, though. It also lies in the fact that this is the kind of politics that he actually lives. I have known Ed for over twenty years, and I know that he is never happier than when he is building connections between people from all walks of life, drawing diverse people together into a politics of the common good.

However crucial his personal role, Ed Miliband did not invent this kind of politics. It has long roots in the Labour tradition, and in aspects of the liberal and conservative traditions too. The key now is to draw intelligently from those historic predecessors, while not giving in to a nostalgic vision of the past. What the centre-left desperately needs, therefore, is a resolutely modern account of how an everyday relational politics can be built. It needs, in other words, policies that are immediately appropriate for our current conditions but which challenge not reinforce the transactional spirit of the age. That is what New Labour failed to find. That is what I try to present in the essay. Argument will no doubt rage about individual suggestions, but it is increasingly clear that this is the agenda that brings new focus to centre-left thinking in Britain today.

Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

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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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