What are Osborne's choices now?

The Chancellor can do what’s best for the economy or retain the support of the Tory party faithful. He cannot do both.

The original game plan for the Conservative-led coalition was fairly simple: to eliminate the structural deficit it had inherited within the five-year parliament and ride the global recovery back to economic growth. With that achieved, the Tories’ reputation for economic competence would be restored, promises to end austerity could be made, and a thumping Conservative majority in 2015 would be the just reward. Unfortunately that proved to be one of many over-optimistic projections.

With the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now trailing Labour in opinion polls, George Osborne appears to face a difficult balancing act between nurturing a pallid economic recovery, maintaining the UK’s AAA credit rating, broadening support for the coalition’s policies, and cementing the loyalty of the Tory party faithful. It seems unlikely that all of these objectives can be achieved simultaneously.

Broadly speaking, the chancellor has three options. First, he could slow the pace of fiscal consolidation over and above simply allowing the "automatic stabilisers" to work, reducing the fiscal drag on the economy. Yet, 90 per cent of those who support the government believe the pace of tightening is about right, or could even be accelerated. With the coalition's austerity programme not even halfway complete, reversing course now would be an admission of failure, a sure-fire way of losing yet more support in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Alternatively, the Chancellor could maintain the current timetable of austerity but look to spread the pain more broadly across society. Economically, this could make sense. ASR’s UK Household Finances Survey clearly illustrates that those on lower incomes are most insecure in their jobs and are experiencing the most significant financial pressures; shifting more of the burden onto those with broader shoulders could help to free up disposable income and support consumer spending. But again, this issue polarises opinion.

Finally, the Chancellor could look to stay the course and stick with the current strategy. This is not as simple as it sounds. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, another £27bn of cuts will need to be specified if the Chancellor is to meet his fiscal envelope. Assuming the coalition endorses the opinions advanced in the Household Finances Survey and maintains the sacrosanctity of the NHS and education, this would leave other departments facing unprecedented cuts of 16 per cent in real-terms during the three years to 2017-18 – areas such as the police, defence and transport. Such cuts look unviable and would prove unpopular. In other words, maintaining the status quo is a false option; the Chancellor will have to either inflict further pain on some segments of society or abandon his remaining fiscal targets before the next election in 2015.

Is there a third way? A boost to public investment notionally financed through the private sector seems like a possible method of fiscal support. This would achieve the multiple aims of supporting growth in the near-term, enhancing the supply-side of the economy and keeping debt off the public sector’s balance sheet. Already, the government plans to guarantee £40bn of loans to finance infrastructure projects, with projects worth £10bn already under consideration. Similar schemes, such as privately-contracted road pricing schemes, might also be considered.

Otherwise, this leaves the British government looking like Mr Micawber, simply hoping that "something will turn up". There are two potential saviours. The government could lean on the Bank of England further, adapting its mandate to provide additional monetary support above and beyond that consistent with its inflation target. At the very least, further rounds of Quantitative Easing look likely. Alternatively, the rest of the world could come to the UK's rescue. A global recovery – particularly one that spreads to the eurozone – would provide a source of demand where currently there is none. Ironically, the UK public’s growing hostility towards the EU comes at a time when it needs Europe more than ever.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dominic White is chief European economist and Richard Mylles is a political risk analyst at Absolute Strategy Research

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