PMQs review: Cameron's Andrew Mitchell problem isn't over

The Chief Whip gave the saga new life by shouting that he "didn't" swear at the police.

It is a measure of how weak Andrew Mitchell's position is that David Cameron couldn't summon a word in defence of his Chief Whip at today's PMQs. Challenged by Ed Miliband to say whether Mitchell (who sat visibly trembling on the frontbench) used the words attributed to him by the police ("fucking plebs"), Cameron merely reiterated that the Chief Whip had apologised and that his apology had been accepted. He said nothing to suggest that Mitchell is secure in his post, simply stating that the government "will get on with the big issues". The Chief Whip didn't help matters by shouting "I didn't" when Miliband claimed that he swore at the police, inviting the press to again ask what he did say.

Miliband, who had earlier referenced Boris Johnson's call for those who swear at the police to be arrested, quipped: "It's a night in the cell for the yobs, it's a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip". He later added: "They say that I practice class war and they go round calling people 'plebs'." But the Labour leader slipped up when he claimed that "everyone else is losing their jobs, the Chief Whip is keeping his". Given today's positive employment figures (which Miliband noted earlier in the session), it wasn't the best attack line to use and Cameron was swift to capitalise. "He wrote those questions yesterday before unemployment fell," the PM observed. Miliband also again falsely implied that all millionaires will benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate (he should have said those who earn £1m a year), a line that gives the media a licence to probe his own personal worth.

The session ended rowdily with Cameron baldly refusing to answer Labour MP Chris Bryant's question on why he had not released all of the text messages between himself and Rebekah Brooks. Cameron insisted that this was because Bryant had refused to apologise for previously quoting unpublished material from the Leveson inquiry (some of which had contained untrue claims about him), but it made him look like a man with something to hide.

Update: Tory vice chairman Michael Fabricant, who resigned as a government whip in last month's reshuffle, has taken to Twitter to confirm that Mitchell did intervene during PMQs to claim that he "didn't" swear at the police.

As I wrote above, this will only increase the pressure on Mitchell to finally reveal what he did say.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting on Whitehall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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