Civic Scotland: nationalism by proxy?

The launch of a new civil society campaign in support of "a broader debate" about Scotland's future

Yesterday, leaders of Scottish civil society met in Edinburgh to launch a campaign aimed at promoting a wider public discussion about Scotland's political, social, economic and constitutional future. The civic Scotland coalition is made up of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), an umbrella body for third sector bodies, the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), think-tank Reform Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the National Union of Students Scotland, the Institute of Directors Scotland and representatives from various religious institutions like the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the launch, Alison Elliot, Convener of the SCVO, expressed frustration at the way the main political parties had conducted the discussion so far: "(It has been) inadequate. The purpose of our initiative is to enable the debate about Scotland's future to make a connection currently lacking with the things which actually matter to people in this country". Although the coalition insists it is completely apolitical and holds no view on whether or not Scotland should become an independent nation-state, it also says that, over the next few months, it is going to examine alternatives to the status-quo, including devolution-plus, full fiscal autonomy and federalism. As Dave Moxham, assistant secretary of the STUC, indicated, it is highly likely that it will eventually come out in favour of multi-option referendum: "We believe that a significant proportion of (STUC) members are interested in options other than the status-quo and independence, and we believe there is space to take that debate forward."

In doing so, civic Scotland faces two substantial challenges. The first is that of running a politically neutral campaign around a highly politicised and divisive issue. The second is that of making the case for a referendum which offers voters a maximum devolution or devolution-plus option without actually endorsing any single constitutional position. In time, these balancing acts will almost certainly prove impossible to maintain.

Take the debate over the format of the ballot paper. The UK government seems set to oppose anything other than a simple Yes/No question, while the Scottish government has repeatedly hinted at its willingness to consider a two or three option system. This makes a confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster more or less inevitable. When it occurs, civic Scotland will have to back the former, thereby strengthening nationalist claims that they are more in tune with Scottish public opinion than their Unionist rivals.

There are a couple of other reasons why the launch of the civic Scotland campaign works to the benefit of the SNP. Firstly, it exposes the awkward position Labour and the Liberal Democrats currently find themselves in with regard to the constitutional debate. Both parties appear to agree that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be significantly increased, yet they also maintain that the referendum should consist of nothing more than a clear-cut choice between independence and the status-quo. This is completely inconsistent. If they are genuinely committed to an enhanced devolutionary settlement, they should join civil society in insisting on the chance to vote for it in 2014. Secondly, it gives Alex Salmond - arch gradualist that he is -- the mandate he needs and wants to stage a multi-option ballot. In the event voters reject independence, this would guarantee Scotland gained a high degree of fiscal autonomy in the very near future.

Clearly, civic Scotland is keen to avoid straying onto the minefield of Scottish party politics. Given how treacherous the territory is at present, this entirely understandable. Unless the Unionist parties give ground on the format of the referendum, however, it probably won't have any choice.

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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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