Did no-one spot that Britain is leaving the EU in five years' time?

It didn't get much attention but a draft European treaty leaked last week maps out a course that, if

Despite the twin facts that European Union affairs came to dominate political news towards the end of last year and the eurozone crisis remains the single most important factor in deciding whether or not the UK economy can recover in 2012, Britain - or rather the British media - just don't seem to be able to sustain in interest in the EU for very long.

Most of the political coverage and commentary in the weekend just passed has focused on two themes: the troubles with Ed Miliband's leadership and David Cameron's ambitions to occupy the electorally popular terrain of moral outrage at the excesses of freewheeling capitalism.

Hardly anyone seems to have noticed or picked up on an extraordinary scoop on Friday by ITV business correspondent Laura Kuenssberg - a draft copy of the proposed new treaty for Eurozone members and their fellow EU travellers. This, remember, is the document that David Cameron will not sign. Its very existence rather contradicts the established story that the prime minister somehow wielded a "veto", since - as has subsequently been noted on a number of occasions - a veto prevents something from happening. And yet here, the other 26 members of the Union are pressing ahead with their plans unimpeded by grumpy Britain.

And, as Evan Davis successfully established in his interview with Cameron on Friday, the fact of the UK's exclusion doesn't actually guarantee any of the safeguards for the British financial services industry, procurement of which was the ostensible motive for wielding a "veto" in the first place.

Of course, the document revealed last week is just the starting point for negotiations. There is a European summit due at the end of this month when the real work of putting a new treaty together will get under way. How much influence Cameron will have over that process is an open question - as is the matter of how much leeway his party will give him to inch back towards a slightly more cooperative stance (as Nick Clegg insists ought to be the case). One thing helping Cameron is the fact that several of the proposed signatories to the euro-plus pact share Britain's concerns about a hardcore fiscal union run, essentially, by Paris and Berlin. The 26 v 1 scenario that emerged at the end of last year masks more subtle diplomatic manoeuvres as negotiations around an actual treaty proceed.

Still, the outcome is looking very tricky indeed for Cameron.

Here are just a few paragraphs that stand out from the draft treaty (written, as usual, in the arcane jargon of European legal documents):

The Contracting Parties undertake to work jointly towards an economic policy fostering the smooth functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union and economic growth through enhanced convergence and competitiveness. In this context, particular attention shall be paid to all developments which, if allowed to persist, might threaten stability, competitiveness and future growth and job creation. To this aim, they will take all necessary actions, including through the Euro Plus Pact.

That sounds a lot as if the inner core of EU members that sign up to the treaty (i.e. not Britain) will be talking on a regular basis about all sorts of economic plans that cut across the wider single market. The idea of the europlus group hatching a "competitiveness" agenda without consulting London will be completely unacceptable to the UK.

With a view to benchmarking best practices, the Contracting Parties ensure that all major economic policy reforms that they plan to undertake will be discussed ex-ante and, where appropriate, coordinated among themselves. This coordination shall involve the institutions of the European Union as required by the law of the Union.

So that confirms it - the euro-plus group will set the economic agenda for the whole EU in advance of Brussels summits and then railroad their plans through the Council.

The President of the Euro Summit shall keep the other Member States of the European Union closely informed of the preparation and outcome of the Euro Summit meetings.

Britain will be allowed to find out what has been arranged in her absence and invited to agree.

Within five years at most following the entry into force of this Treaty, on the basis of an assessment of the experience with its implementation, an initiative shall be launched, in compliance with the provisions of the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, with the aim of incorporating the substance of this Treaty into the legal framework of the European Union.

And eventually - in the not too distant future - whatever grand new economic schemes have been settled by all of the signatories to the new treaty will be presented to the non-signatories as a fait accompli and turned into a new pan-EU treaty after all. At that point Britain will have to sign up (having had minimal input) on a take it or leave it basis. It is very hard to see any government agreeing to that, let alone parliament ratifying it, whoever is running the government by 2017.

In other words, this draft treaty sets up a framework and a timetable for the evolution of European economic policy as mediated by EU institutions that, if not substantially amended, all but guarantees Britain's departure from the Union. Not long ago it was scarcely thinkable; a distant hope for the most hardline sceptics. Now it's all queued up to happen in five years' time. It is odd, to say the least, that this didn't get more coverage over the weekend.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political 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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