Political sketch: "Will ye no come back again"

As Cameron left Edinburgh, the SNP choir could be forgiven singing the famous Scottish ballad.

The Prime Minister went to Scotland yesterday and confirmed his dad's name was Cameron, thereby putting the lie to those who have spent the last 19 months claiming the illegitimate alternative.

But it was doubtful that this honest admission would be enough to dissuade the five million other inhabitants with similar claims from voting to knock the U off the UK during his time in office. Clearly SNP leader Alex Salmond had rung up Central Casting during some moment of doubt in his campaign to lead Scotland and its oil in a different direction.

How about an Eton-educated millionaire, many of whose mates sound like him but own large swathes of your country, and who leads a political party whose Westminster representation can be counted on the finger of one finger? they said. Obviously Alex thought they were joking but yesterday David Cameron did indeed turn up in Edinburgh as the spokesperson for the "Keep Scotland English" campaign.

It says something for the paucity of those who would persuade the Scots that the UK is a better brand than independence that the Prime Minister -- for whom admission to a Scottish surname may well be held against him by some of the more recidivist wing of his party that had not made the connection -- was the best on offer.

Having spent many unhappy years in Westminster having his nose rubbed in his Scottishness, the SNP leader looked overjoyed at having such a prime example of why his country should go its own way standing next to him. Not that Dave didn't make the best of the appalling hand that fate had dealt him. Apart from claiming shared ancestry he did make a passionate appeal for continued connection between the increasingly disparate parts of the UK on grounds from cultural to economic.

But a sign of the hard case to make came after he gave as an example continued membership as a veto holder of the UN Security Council. No jobs for the Scottish unemployed in that, said a gleeful Alex, who was more than happy to repeat his mantra that the days of London lording over Scotland, not to mention it's First Minister, had well and truly passed. The Prime Minister wandered around the Scottish capital for a few hours like any other day visitor, first at the Firth of Forth for the 39 Steps experience and then to the shadow of Edinburgh Castle for the ignore-the-speech experience. Earlier he had been present when Pepsi-Co announced 30 new jobs.

He finally got in to see the First Secretary after lunch having first had to slip in through a side door to avoid protests over the effects of the Coalitions cuts on public services in Scotland. Then with all the pleasure Alex could muster he met the PM sitting in front of a wall map charting the extent of the SNP's domination of Scottish politics following the last Assembly elections.

There could be more goodies for the Scots if they voted to stick with the union, said Dave, and added to Alex's glee by refusing to say what they could be. With the alleged talks going just long enough for no one to say they had been a total waste of time, they ended with the admission that no progress had been made.

As Dave left, the SNP choir could be forgiven for delivering a chorus of that famous Scottish ballad : "Will ye no come back again."

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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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