PMQs sketch: crimson Cameron takes a bashing

The PM turned into a shouty version of the BBC’s George Entwistle as he tried and failed to cope with Miliband's onslaught.

When the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland accused the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition of telling “a whole load of rubbish jokes" you could tell another week had gone by in the British body politic. And what a week it was as MPs gathered in the Commons chamber for the regular taking of the government’s temperature masquerading as Prime Minister's Questions.

When Harold Wilson declared a week "a long time in politics" he could not know that. 40 years on, former government chief whip Andrew Mitchell would be living, if that’s the right word, proof. Just seven days ago, "Thrasher" sat squirming as Ed Miliband described him as "toast" and his PM professed undying devotion. Fast forward a week, and there were scorch marks where he once sat.

In his place, a rather surprised Sir George Samuel Knatchbull Young 6th baronet, who just six weeks ago had been pensioned off by the same PM who needed his old job as Leader of the House to dump disgraced Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. Sir George, known as a decent old cove in Tory circles, had hardly got his knitting out before being called back to the colours.

Labour’s Kevin Barron (Maltby Comp) tried to make something of the PM’s recent commitment to the masses by pointing out Sir George, like Dave, had gone to Eton, but it was clear the bicycling baronet (for whom the Downing Street cops will undoubtedly salute) was indifferent to such plebby intervention.

But Ed hardly had to bother with this sudden change of fortune as he ranged around the latest confusions and cockups which seem to mark the PM’s passage. The Labour leader came off his seat like Zebedee as Speaker Bercow sounded the bell on the weekly clash where questions asked are never answered and answers given where never questioned. Having demanded an explanation to last week’s energy tariffs fiasco , where the PM had promised benefits for all, Ed gave his own answer. It was another dodgy Dave offer. Normally the PM bats away the first few insults as he tries to hang on to the composure his advisers say should go with the job. But you could have hot-wired him straight into the National Grid and heated Milton Keynes as Ed found his chakra and poked it with a stick. The Prime Minister turned into a shouty version of the BBC’s George Entwistle as he tried and failed to cope with Ed’s onslaught. What about the West Coast main-line, he shouted, to the delight of Labour and the increasingly nervous noise of the Tories.

Chancellor George tried to help out “from a sedentary position” (which is Commons-speak for sitting down) only to be denounced with delight by Ed for his part in the first class ticket fiasco. With the noise in the chamber dangerously close to shaking the Deputy PM out of his slumber of indifference, the Speaker had to produce his own pogo-stick to remind MPs of the rules of engagement. But by now, the Labour leader was enjoying himself too much to stop. “The crimson tide is back,” he said referring to the PM’s now accepted habit of displaying the hues of autumn everywhere above his collar. Dave did try a rather strangulated defence of the question not asked about the economy, revealing that tomorrow’s growth figures for the last quarter will be as good as forecast, but the cheers from his side were lost in the jeers from the other.

With Dave in the doldrums, eyes do stray up and down the government front bench to see who the runners and riders of any future challenge might be. Despite their appearance as nodding dogs every time the PM spoke, most of his cabinet was there to be seen, including Home Secretary Theresa May. She is the latest to be shown in the parade ring, qualifying for so far avoiding departmental meltdown and pressing the right Europe buttons. But her head was bouncing in dutiful sequence with the rest as a relieved Dave, not to mention his party , finally came to the end of the Ed-banging.

As PMQs tried to get back to proper business, Labour’s Tom Watson, scourge of the Murdochs, asked about a file on a paedophile ring which included references to a parliamentary aide to a former Prime Minister. No jokes in this.

David Cameron: "you could have hot-wired him straight into the National Grid and heated Milton Keynes". Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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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