The secret plan to raise the price of student finance hints the government wants to privatise loans

Deferred gratification is not this lot's strong point.

Since the Guardian's scoop about "Project Hero", the secret Government report which proposed retroactively raising the price of student loans, there've been a couple of extra points raised which deserve thinking about.

The first is about the language used. Ministers were given a script, by which they might sell the plans to recent graduates. They were supposed to tell them that:

We all live in difficult times. You have a deal which is so much better than your younger siblings (they will incur up to £9,000 tuition fees and up to RPI+3% interest rates); it won’t make any difference to how much you pay in the short or medium term, just how long you pay it for.

The timing of the report is important to bear in mind, here. It was finalised after the Government had already approved, but not yet implemented, the post-2012 fee regime. A fee regime which was described as "fairer - opening the doors of universities to everyone, regardless of where they're from" and "the fairest option on the table - fairer than the current system and fairer than the graduate tax too" by David Cameron, and "a system of graduate contributions that is fair for all" by David Willets.

Few students going in to university in 2012 will have thought that they were experiencing a "fairer" system than their older siblings did; so it's interesting to know that exactly at the same time that ministers were making these pronouncements, the experts they'd hired to work out how to squeeze the most out of the graduates were busy telling them that it was self-evident that the fee regime was being made much worse.

The second point is the motivation for the changes. Raising the interest rate payable on loan balances won't get any extra money to the government now, when the vast majority of loans taken out since 1998 remain outstanding. Instead, it will increase the time taken to fully pay off the loans, in some cases pushing it all the way back to the 25-year/retirement maximum. That means as time goes on, and people who would have paid back their loans carry on paying off the interest, more money comes into the state.

But this is a government supremely, myopically concerned with the deficit now. If they were able to defer pleasure, they'd have waited to cut the deficit until we were out of depression, after all. So why do it? To make the loan book more appealing to private investors.

The idea of selling off the student loan portfolio has been mooted for a while now. It's an easy way of turning a bunch of future income streams into one handy payment. And if that sounds a bit like a daytime TV advert for debt refinancing, that's because it is. The Government would inevitably sell the debt – which is estimated at between £35bn and £45bn – at far below what they would get if they held on to it. That's partially because you always lose cash if you divest yourself of risk, but it's also because this is not a sale which we can expect to be entered into with the Government negotiating at strength. It's such a political football that any potential buyer will know that once the decision's been made, they aren't going to back track – and so offers below par will be accepted to save face.

That's even more likely to be the case if the Government decides to privatise the loan book before the election in 2015. That will be a fire-sale to remember.

If the measures proposed in Project Hero are enacted, it won't be the end of the fight over student finance – just the start of the next battle.

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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