Continental drift

Cameron plays to the eurosceptic gallery, but where does this leave the coalition?

There's only one story in the Sunday papers this morning: Nick Clegg's"fury" (the Observer) at David Cameron's refusal on Friday to sign up to a revision to the Lisbon treaty. For the first 19 months of its existence, the coalition has managed to choreograph the tensions between its constituent parts reasonably effectively, helped, it has to be said, by the Lib Dem leader's emollience. As Marina Hyde put it in the Guardian yesterday, Clegg's instruction to his party in government appears to have been to "take bucketloads of crap and wield none of the power". But not any more, if newspaper reports are to be believed.

According to the Observer's source: "[Clegg] could not believe that Cameron hadn't tried to play for more time. A menu of choices wasn't deployed as a negotiating tool but instead was presented as a take it or leave it ultimatum. That is not how he would have played Britain's hand." Clegg is said to fear that Cameron's flounce in Brussels on Friday will leave Britain the "lonely man of Europe". This is a view echoed by one of his predecessors as leader of the Lib Dems, Paddy Ashdown. In a piece for the Observer that runs beneath the headline "We have tipped 38 years of foreign policy down the drain", Ashdown argues that Cameron succeeded merely in "isolat[ing] [Britain] from Europe and diminish[ing] ourselves in Washington":

[W]e have used the veto - but stopped nothing. In order to "protect the City" we have made it more vulnerable. At a time of economic crisis, we have made it more attractive for investors to go to northern Europe. We have tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain in one night. We have handed the referendum agenda over to the Eurosceptics. We have strengthened the arguments of those who would break the union.

These latter, Ashdown argues, include not only the 81 eurosceptic Tory MPs who are now effectively "running" the prime minister, but also Alex Salmond, for whom the fiasco on Friday represents an "unconvenanted gift": "If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?"

What of Labour? Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander gave a rather assured performance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, arguing that the upshot for Britain of the negotiations in Brussels last week were "economically inadequate and politically disastrous". There was a deal to be made, Alexander insisted, but Cameron never wanted to make it: "This was about the politics of the Conservative Party." That's true, but Labour oughtn't to derive too much comfort from their opponent's misfortune. Andrew Marr asked, reasonably enough, what deal Britain might have made. Here Alexander was evasive, content simply to point out that there are no "legal protections" for the City of London in place today that weren't in place on Thursday.

Much the most interesting part of the interview concerned Alexander's view of the deal that was cooked up by the other European leaders, with Germany and France in the vanguard. As Owen Jones pointed out in a blog here on Friday, "François Hollande - the Socialist candidate for the French presidency - has already spoken out against a treaty cooked up by Europe's overwhelmingly right-of-centre governments," one that effectively outlaws Keynesianism. Hollande has argued that deficit reduction in Europe is a necessary but not sufficient condition of economic recovery: "Without growth, budgetary readjustment on its own will not achieve the desired results." Alexander, for his part, wondered how the "austerity package" agreed on Friday, which will work for Germany, will work for Italy or Greece. It's a good question, and one that Labour, together with its social-democratic partners in Europe, ought to pressing in the coming months.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture 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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