The West Coast rail fiasco will probably cost us a lot more than £50m

Try doubling it.

"£50m at the very least" is the latest amount that the West Coast rail fiasco is expected to cost the tax-payer although the cost might be "very much larger".

It would seem the Public Accounts Committee has picked the lowest possible number it can think of (in the grand scheme of government money wasting £50m must seem insignificant to the PAC) thinking that people will say, “oh just £50m, that’s not so bad”, while they mutter in an undertone, hoping no one will hear, “it might be a bit more though”.

For a government that won an election on the importance of cuts, the bonfire of quangos and the sacking of unnecessary civil servants the manifest, barefaced disregard for any money other than your own is, at best, infuriating and at worst just depressing.   

The report from the PAC has said the aborted west coast franchise award was down to a "complete lack of common sense" from "blinkered, rushed" senior officials.

I honestly wish this were true. How simple it would be if this was just a case of lack of common sense, a one off mistake, something even the best of us are guilty of suffering of from time to time.

Sadly, this is a result of a far deeper problem. The truth is many people working for the DfT (as well as the rest of the government) simply do not care if the money is wasted.

As the government further alienates its staff, heavy handedly wielding its cost saving sword, blunders due to a complete lack of care are going to become more common. 

The reality is that we do not know and will probably never know just how much this whole unfortunate mess cost the tax-payer in the end.

I think a good rule to stick to when trying to find the bottom line in the chaos and confusion of any government screw up (there are almost certainly more coming at high speed from Birmingham) is to double any number proffered and hope that’s the worst of it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Billy Bambrough writes for Retail Banker International at VRL financial news.
 

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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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