Will Cameron and Osborne remain silent over Goldman Sachs's tax ploy?

Having denounced "aggressive tax avoidance", Osborne is under pressure to respond to the bank's plan to avoid the 50p rate tax by delaying bonus payments.

Update: It appears that the adverse publicity has prompted a rethink at Goldman. The bank has dropped plans to delay bonus payments and, consequently, will pay the 50p rate. Before the announcement, the Treasury said simply: "We do not comment on the tax affairs of individual companies, but we are clear that everyone must pay the tax they owe."

As Alex reported yesterday, mega-bank Goldman Sachs is considering deferring bonus payments for its UK employees until April in order to benefit from the reduction of the 50p tax rate to 45p. The proposed tax dodge has already drawn criticism from Labour, with shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie declaring that "banks need to think carefully about their own reputations if they seek to avoid tax in this way" and the redoubtable Margaret Hodge accusing Goldmans of not giving "a toss about collective responsibility".

This morning, Bank of England governor Mervyn King added his voice to the protests. During his appearance before the Treasury select committee, he commented:

I find it a bit depressing that people who earn so much find it would be even more exciting to adjust their payouts to benefit from the tax rate, knowing that this must have an impact of the rest of society, which is suffering most from the consequences of the financial crisis. I think it would be a rather clumsy and lacking in care and attention to how other people might react. And in the long run, financial institutions do depend on goodwill from society.

King's intervention prompts the question of whether David Cameron and George Osborne will have anything to say about the matter. In last year's Budget, Osborne memorably denounced "aggressive tax avoidance" as "morally repugnant". And if Cameron is prepared to take the time to attack Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance, one might expect him to comment when one of the world's largest investment banks deploys similar chicanery. The numbers involved are not insignificant. Goldman paid out £8bn in bonuses last year and a similar stunt by the bank and others in 2010 (when they brought forward income in order to avoid the rise from 40p to 50p) cost the Treasury £16bn.

Labour is keen to take every opportunity to remind the public that the government is choosing to cut taxes for the top 1.5 per cent of earners this April. With the additional chance to protest at "aggressive tax avoidance", don't be surprised if Ed Miliband raises this issue at PMQs tomorrow.

Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. 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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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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