Eurogroup demonstrates how not to calm fears about Cyprus

Jeroen Dijsselbloem nearly ruined everything.

Good news! Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chair of the group of eurozone finance ministers, nearly accidentally killed the euro yesterday.

In what Reuters blogger Felix Salmon described as a "formal, on-the-record joint interview" with Reuters and the FT, Dijsselbloem managed to suggest that the Cypriot bail-in was, in the words of Reuters' Luke Baker, "a new template for resolving eurozone banking problems".

Dijsselbloem said:

What we've done last night is what I call pushing back the risks… If there is a risk in a bank, our first question should be 'Okay, what are you in the bank going to do about that? What can you do to recapitalise yourself?'. If the bank can't do it, then we'll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders, we'll ask them to contribute in recapitalising the bank, and if necessary the uninsured deposit holders.

The tenor of Dijsselbloem's comments certainly suggests he meant them to be generally applied. And, on paper, it's a good ranking of priorities: first you get the bank, which caused the problem, to claw back as much as it can, then you talk to the shareholders and bondholders, who have knowingly taken a risk on the bank's solvency, and then, you talk to depositors. Because depositors are, after all, just people who have loaned money to the bank in a different form; and if they're uninsured, they've always known there was a risk of losing a lot if they bank went under.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of thing that you aren't supposed to say. Because the obvious outcome of explicitly stating that uninsured depositors are considered legitimate sources of funds for the recapitalization of their banks is that uninsured depositors start taking their money out of their banks, particularly in the other eurozone nations where the banks aren't yet out of trouble.

Bank runs are, generally, considered bad news. So it's somewhat unsurprising that shortly after Dijsselbloem's interview hit the press, he released a terse statement walking it back. You could smell the burning rubber from the speed of the u-turn; it reads, in full:

Cyprus is a specific case with exceptional challenges which required the bail-in measures we have agreed upon yesterday.

Macro-economic adjustment programmes are tailor-made to the situation of the country concerned and no models or templates are used.

It's hard to know quite what Dijsselbloem was thinking – although Paweł Morski presents an entertaining scenario of his own. But it becomes a bit clearer when you look at his background.

Dijsselbloem is the Netherlands' finance minister, a position he has only been in since 2012. His extraordinary position of power in the eurogroup comes from the standard rotating presidency, rather than any particular competency, and, although his electoral career goes back to 2000, his only other policy jobs have been the leader of a parliamentary inquiry on education reform in 2007 and a post at the agriculture ministry from 1996 to 2000.

The eurozone seems to alternate between the under-elected and the under-qualified, and it's not getting any better.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, with Christine Lagarde and Olli Rehn. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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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