Coalition should "come clean" on child poverty

Even the government doesn't think it can meet its own targets. A new plan is needed.

In his first speech as the government's child poverty adviser, Alan Milburn today told the coalition to "come clean" on the impossibility of meeting the poverty reduction targets enshrined in the 2010 Child Poverty Act. The challenge of reducing child poverty to less than 10 per cent by 2020 has been laid bare by analysis revealing the heavy work done by tax credits in raising family incomes above the poverty line over the last 15 years. Work did not do enough: parental employment rates rose considerably over this period but low wages limited the contribution of paid work to reducing family poverty.

This is now the central challenge for the child poverty agenda: how to reduce poverty when the only tool that been shown to be effective -- more generous cash transfers -- is no longer available on any meaningful scale. The task is made harder by analysis highlighting the contribution that women's paid work has made to rising family incomes over the last few decades. This source of income is likely to diminish as public sector jobs are lost and support for childcare is reduced for some families. As a result, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that it's "almost incredible" that the child poverty targets can be met as they stand.

So Alan Milburn is right to challenge both the coalition and Labour to get real about child poverty. The Chancellor's Autumn Statement, featuring cuts to tax credits that will push 100,000 more children into poverty, implicitly confirmed that the government doesn't think it can meet its own targets either. But officially the coalition remains committed to the 2010 Act, so it needs to say where it will focus its efforts. Milburn makes a strong case for prioritising the under fives, ensuring that no child is born into poverty. If we cannot afford to lift all children out of poverty, concentrating on the youngest gives them the best chance to flourish later in life.

The importance of raising incomes in poor families is obvious, but families also need good quality services to give children the best start. There is no "either/or" deal here. Milburn's call for the coalition to set out a long-term plan to deliver free childcare for all families is right. IPPR research shows that universal childcare could pay for itself over the medium-term once the extra taxes paid by working parents are taken into account, while the extra earnings would help lift many families out of poverty. A mechanism for enabling childcare spend to contribute towards the child poverty targets would drive a duel strategy of investment in incomes and services. In the longer term, labour market reforms that support higher wages for parents would take some of the burden off the benefits system.

The public's ambiguous support for ending child poverty demonstrates the failure of this agenda to resonate with families. Milburn's broader plea to locate the child poverty debate in a wider discussion of economic security is spot on. Few families are continually stuck in deep poverty, but many move in and out of poverty as short-term jobs come to an end or families grow. Free childcare, flexible working opportunities, decent wages and job security matter for most low-to-mid income families, not just the poorest.

Kayte Lawton is a senior research fellow at the IPPR

Kayte Lawton is senior research fellow at IPPR.

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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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