How will Ed Davey strike back at Osborne?

The Energy Secretary has been undermined and humiliated by the Chancellor's machinations on wind power. He must reassert his authority.

It is not a surprise to learn that some Tory backbenchers don’t like onshore wind turbines. Indeed, any politician in a rural constituency, including Lib Dems in the south west and local councillors all over and from all parties, will testify to the fact that nothing packs a town hall with irate constituents like a meeting about a planned windmill.

One such MP recently suggested to me that this passion owed more to people’s sense of disempowerment than to objections to the principle of renewable energy. The feeling runs high that forces mustered elsewhere, not from the local community, uninterested in local concerns, were launching a kind of metropolitan colonisation of the landscape.  Nonetheless, that anger has been effectively mobilised and channelled by people who also happen not to think that climate change is a problem – or at the very least, not a problem to which public investment in renewable energy in the form of onshore wind power is a solution.

It is clear from recent events that such a view has a strong hold on the parliamentary Conservative party. It would also appear to be discreetly encouraged by George Osborne. I reported some weeks ago that the Chancellor is, in private, scathing about environmental regulations seeing them as a tedious impediment to business and a brake on growth. He is said to be quite dismissive of the Climate Change Act, which commits Britain to reduce its carbon emissions. He is, however, stuck with it.

That hasn’t stopped him apparently nurturing the feeling among Tory backbenchers that the environmentalists’ windmill fetish is a legitimate target for attack, regardless of what official coalition policy might have to say on the matter.

Partly, I suspect, this is driven by a recognition that the restive right wing of the Conservative party needs feeding if it is not to start committing acts of dangerous sabotage against the whole Cameron-Osborne project, and green policies make a tender and tasty-looking sacrificial lamb. Osborne is often said to be preoccupied by the strategic threat from Ukip and anti-turbinery is just the kind of protest issue that fires up the Faragists. It is also remarkable how Tory backbench anti-greenery is coloured with spite towards the Lib Dems who see themselves as worthy stewards of environmentalism in government.

Besides, opinion polls show the public are not terribly interested in environmental policy. Focus groups reveal something closer to actual hostility. Hard-pressed voters associate green issues with middle class affectation – shopping for over-priced organic vegetables in exclusive farmers’ markets etc. As a diligent student of the polls, Osborne will have concluded that he can safely ditch his party’s eco-credentials. This rather ignores the fact that one of the few things people knew David Cameron claimed to believe in before the election was the sanctity of the environment. Regardless of whether they share that belief, voters will still see its cavalier abandonment as a sign of unprincipled flakiness. But, as I wrote in my column this week in relation to welfare cuts, the Tory high command has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to judging what will harm their brand – even when they appear to have built their entire political project on image management.

The news in recent days – the revelation that the Tories’ campaign manager in the Corby by-election appeared to be freelance pimping for a potential anti-turbine candidate – has brought into the open the extent to which Conservative policy on this issue is being discreetly set in deference to the Quixotic* tendency.

It also raises the question of what Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Climate Change, plans to do about it. Immediately after the last cabinet reshuffle, the Lib Dems alleged that the promotion of John Hayes (Minister of State for Energy) and Owen Paterson (Secretary of State at DEFRA) were hostile acts orchestrated by Osborne to undermine Davey. That view has now been pretty comprehensively confirmed.

That leaves the credibility of Davey in serious doubt. What authority does he have as a cabinet minister when the Chancellor is known to be manoeuvring around him. The Lib Dems don’t have enough heavyweight cabinet figures or emblematic policy issues to let one just slip away into impotence and ridicule. Davey will surely have to strike back somehow and reassert his authority. 

*Tilting at windmills. (Sorry.)

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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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