The real reason Clegg saved the NHS bill

If the junior coalition party had killed the bill, Cameron would have appointed a Lib Dem health sec

The Budget has blown most other political news off the agenda, so it is worth recalling that earlier in the week the cabinet was celebrating what it thought was the passing of a different headache: Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms. There was apparently a hearty banging of the cabinet table on Tuesday in celebration of the Health and Social Care Bill's gruesome completion of its parliamentary odyssey. I suspect that jubilation expressed relief rather than pleasure.

Either way, it was premature. Downing Street is hoping that the noisy fury around the NHS reforms will die down now that they aren't the subject of legislative trench warfare, but no-one is so naive as to think the issue will go away. Every increase in waiting times, every closed ward, every bungled operation will now be firmly blamed (fairly or not) on the choices made by the coalition. This is one area where "clearing up Labour's mess" really doesn't apply as a defence.

It has been something of a mystery to me as to why the Lib Dems - who have been well aware of the political toxicity of the health reforms for over a year - didn't demand that they be dropped. I know that there was some regret in Nick Clegg's team that the "pause" declared in the passage of the bill was not turned into a full stop last year. I also know that quite a few senior Tories and Downing Street aides came to the same view and rather wished the Lib Dems had killed the monster when they had the chance.

But at that time, Clegg was still very much concerned about coalition being seen to work as a form of government and was wary of obstructing such a big public sector reform. The Tories would have milked the episode for plenty of concessions of their own. Eventually, the Prime Minister decided that it was better to take the pain of trying to implement the reforms than absorb the humiliation of a gigantic u-turn (especially since an irreversible budget squeeze ensured a dose of NHS pain either way). Once Cameron had made that call, the Lib Dems fell into line.

But if they had really wanted to stop the thing, they still could have insisted. And the threat of being contaminated with Tory toxicity on the health service was substantial. So why did Clegg still press ahead? One explanation given to me recently is highly revealing about the way coalition works. There were, I am told, senior Lib Dem discussions until very late in the day about whether or not to kill the NHS bill. The key problem, it was decided - no doubt with the help of dark warnings from the prime minister - was that the quid pro quo for blocking Tory reform of the health service would be total Lib Dem ownership of the issue in the future. In other words, if Clegg wanted to block Lansley, he would have to accept having a Lib Dem secretary of state replace him in the next reshuffle and take responsibility for whatever happened next.

The message from Cameron was: you break it, you fix it. Wisely, Clegg decided that was not an opportunity he felt like taking. That explains also why there has been chatter about a Lib Dem taking the health portfolio in the near future. They weren't rumours, they were threats. I'm now fairly sure it won't happen. That doesn't mean Lansley won't be shuffled out - but he'll have to be replaced by another Tory.

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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