Equal marriage isn't totally equal when it comes to pensions

A hang-over from civil partnerships keeps same-sex couples different in the eyes of the law.

Moneybox's Paul Lewis points out on Twitter an interesting quirk of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill: when it comes to pensions, it's not entirely equal.

Paragraph 123 of the explanatory notes reads:

Paragraph 18 of Schedule 9 to the Equality Act 2010 provides that it is not discrimination because of sexual orientation to restrict access to a benefit, facility or service that would be available to a person who was married, to someone who is in a civil partnership in relation to rights accrued before 5 December 2005 (the date the Civil Partnership Act came into force). This means that an occupational pension scheme as a minimum only has to provide survivor benefits to civil partners on rights accrued since that date. Paragraph 15 removes the word married from sub-paragraph (1) and inserts a new sub-paragraph (1A) in paragraph 18 of Schedule 9 to the Equality Act 2010. This extends the exception so that it also applies to same sex couples in the same way as to civil partners.

That is: if you are married to someone of the same sex, your marriage is qualitatively different in at least one (potentially very important) way. Any pension benefits accrued before 5 December 2005 are allowed to continue to ignore same-sex marriages.

The reasoning behind the rule is obvious. When pension funds were estimating the costs of providing couples' benefits, a small but significant part of the estimation will have been based on the fact that any gay members of the pension plan would never be able to claim those benefits. When civil partnerships were introduced, it was decided it would be more trouble than it was worth to force those funds to treat civil partnerships as marriages; and now, since the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill is essentially just a provision for changing the name of civil partnerships, the same rule is being carried over.

It's important to note that the rules are just the minimum, so most pension funds will presumably do the right thing and cover married couples equally regardless of gender. And obviously eventually the difference will be moot. But the desire to take the easy way out may end up hurting a few couples just when they're at their most vulnerable. Hopefully an amendment will change this rule and restore equality to equal marriages.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496