PMQs review: Cameron's health problems get worse

A confident Ed Miliband left Cameron badly beaten on the NHS.

The NHS has become the Tories' biggest political headache and Ed Miliband has every intention of making it worse. He devoted all six of his questions to the subject at today's PMQs, the last before the recess, and earned one of his most convincing victories to date. Confronted by the sheer size of the opposition to the health bill, an ill-tempered David Cameron was forced to fall back on platitudes about his "care" for the NHS and Brown-esque statistics on higher spending. He quoted the Labour manifesto on the need for "sustained reform", forgetting that the choice isn't between reform and no reform but good reform and bad reform.

At one point, after Miliband had recited a roll call of Labour's NHS achievements, Cameron replied: "if the record was so good, why were they thrown out at the last election?. A quip which rather invited the response: "if the record was so bad, why didn't you win?" It was an embarrassing and undistinguished performance.

A confident Miliband, buoyed by polls showing that Labour enjoys a clear lead on the NHS, declared of Cameron: "he thinks he knows better than the doctors, better than the nurses, better than the midwives, better than the patients associations." It was a damning charge that the PM had no way of refuting. Armed with a quiver of poisonous quotes from No 10 ("Lansley should be taken out and shot"), Miliband could legitimately claim: "he knows in his heart of hearts this is a disaster." The PM's protestations to the contrary only made him look insincere.

It was notable that Cameron offered a less than fulsome defence of Andrew Lansley, remarking only that his "career prospects" were better than Miliband's, a comment that will do nothing to dampen speculation over the Health Secretary's position.

"The NHS will go on going better and his (Miliband's) prospects will go on getting worse," Cameron snapped towards the end of the exchanges. But an increasing number of Tories fear the reverse is true: the NHS will go on getting worse and Miliband's prospects will get better.

George Eaton is 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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