Are the Tories losing patience with Clegg?

Downing Street used to deal with Lib Dem "differentiation" with casual condescension. Now the tone i

There was an intriguing flicker of dissent on the government benches during Prime Minister's Questions today when Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP for West Cornwall, asked David Cameron if he would consider abandoning the bill containing controversial health reforms. (He won't.)

As rebellious interventions go it was fairly tame, since quite a lot of Tory MPs privately wish the bungled and unloved health reforms would go away. Still, it was a blunt display of Lib Dem assertiveness, which is, apparently the party's plan for 2012. As I wrote earlier this year, Lib Dem strategists have decided to treat Cameron's European veto -- a humiliation for the avowedly Europhile Nick Clegg -- as a licence to "dial up differentiation." In other words, with the Tories surging ahead in areas close to their hearts, it was time for Lib Dems to start making their voices heard a bit louder.

This new, slightly more churlish attitude to coalition is also the best context in which to see the emerging row over "Boris Island". the London mayor's vision of a floating airport in the Thames estuary. Cameron has said he is interested; Clegg was apparently all signed up. Now, suddenly, the Lib Dems have got cold feet. The Tory explanation -- delivered with some irritation -- is that the junior coalition partner doesn't want to go along with something that would boost Conservative chances in mayoral and London Assembly elections in May.

It is noteworthy that the Tories are responding to Lib Dem meddling with some fairly aggressive briefing. This is relatively new. In the past, Downing Street has been happy to have Tory backbenchers let off steam, complaining about the "yellow bastards" with whom they are trapped in partnership. But the standard response from Conservatives in government to Clegg and his team seeking credit for policy or boasting about how they killed Tory ideas always used to be carefully calibrated condescension. The line was that it was better to rise above such petty games. Towards the end of last year, this was upgraded to a more pointed "we don't think it really helps them much" -- the implication being that the Lib Dems embarrass themselves by point-scoring in coalition all the time.

Now it seems Number 10 is taking a more robust approach. The Telegraph's Ben Brogan has an illuminating insight in his column this morning, including some pretty terse remarks about Clegg, his party's uncollegiate tendencies and, astonishingly, his continental ancestry. A source close to the prime minister is reported noting that the Lib Dem leader is "quite foreign you know" adding that "no-one has noticed but there isn't much that is British about him."

It has been noted before that Clegg brings a continental approach to politics that doesn't always gel that well with Westminster's knockabout culture. But this attempt to portray his Europhilia as intrinsically suspect in some deeper sense represents a stepping up of internal coalition hostilities. The Lib Dems have long been amenable to a bit of casual Cameron-bashing on the side. The Tories mostly turned the other cheek. If both parties start hurling insults around things could quickly get out of hand.

 

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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