PMQs sketch: Vince on the naughty step

From the far end of the House, Cable peered up the bench at "the quad" on the budget issue.

The secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, the Right Honourable Dr John Vincent Cable, was back where he belonged today: on the Government's naughty step.

He had gone to ground last night after a day of pre-budget mischief-making but was forced back out into the open as MPs gathered for prime ministers' questions. It is here that the choreography of the coalition can be studied as positioning on the government front bench is as eagerly studied as Sir Alex Ferguson's Saturday team sheet.

There is a spot well down the bench where those out of favour with Number 10 and its power brokers can skulk - either happily because they are close enough to the exit to bolt or sadly because they are on the way out.

Both options applied to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley who recently set a coalition record for occupying it. Indeed, some thought he had been there long enough to claim squatters' rights.

But Vince, who had already spent several PMQs there, was never likely to give it up for long, and in making his return yesterday, allowed a grateful health secretary the opportunity to at last find a quiet corner to hide in. The relief of knowing in advance that the naughty step was already booked for the session was obvious on the faces of other serial offenders like Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, whose own chances of an early return cannot have been hurt by Liberal Democrats pronouncing him "one of us".

But Vince's decision yesterday to confirm recently written doubts about the government's lack of strategic direction on growth two weeks before the budget made him the naughty step's obvious occupant.

You could tell just how much trouble he was in by the placing of Eric Pickles, the man who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "cabinet heavyweight", right next to him.

Vince adopted a scowl so redolent of those figures carved in stone above the doors of the Minster in York, the town of his birth, that you would think the original masons must have met his ancestors. But it is more likely tied to his exclusion from the main decision making over the budget and its effects. He believes he should be part of both because of his present job and his experience as a working economist.

Instead he could only peer up the bench in the direction of "the quad", the Coalition's own Gang of Four, who have reserved the right to sort out the way ahead.

Apart from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Vince has had to swallow his leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg as a member, not to mention Danny Alexander who had been sent out to buy some sweets and came back as chief secretary to the Treasury.

Indeed PMQs had hardly begun before Dave was asked if he shared Vince's doubts about the government's direction of travel. The PM said no, but all eyes switched to Chancellor George, following reports that the two previous best buddies were presently using separate song sheets. From mansion tax to child credits, scrapping the 50p income tax rate to squeezing pension benefits for the better off, the Tory side of the coalition equation have found themselves with the dilemma of working out which group of their own supporters to hit most.

This was not lost on the usually raucous ranks of the recidivist wing of the party who were significantly quieter during the interchanges.

All of which made life easier for Ed Miliband as he perfected his Dave technique by calmly asking the PM questions about the detail of government policy, a subject on which he does not have a GCSE.

Ed first pleased his own side by asking what message Dave had for someone about to lose all his tax credits unless he finds extra work at a time of record unemployment. Then he added to Tory discomfort by asking what message he had for those among the squeezed middle about to lose child benefits.

The Tory side was ominously quiet as the Prime Minister said life was about difficult decisions.

As Vince prepared to escape from the overhang that is Eric Pickles, nominations for next week's naughty step were already flooding in with the field being led by Tory MP Nadine Norries.

Sadly, Nadine does not qualify, as she is not on the front bench and, following an intervention in the FT yesterday, it is up to the reader to calculate her chances as the PM was asked for his comments on the following:

"The problem is that policy is being run by two public schoolboys who don't know what it's like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can't afford it for their children's lunchboxes. What's worse, they don't care either."

Vince almost smiled.

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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