Miliband's 10p tax pledge is a political masterstroke

The Labour leader has distanced himself from one of Gordon Brown's biggest mistakes, demonstrated his commitment to redistribution and left the coalition playing catch-up.

It looks like Ed Miliband has been reading the New Statesman. Last week's NS leader urged the Labour leader to call for the return of the 10p tax rate (as demanded by Conservative MP Robert Halfon) and in his speech on the economy, Miliband has done just that. 

Having borrowed one smart idea from a Tory, Miliband has borrowed another from a Lib Dem (Vince Cable). The return of the 10p rate will be funded by the introduction of a "mansion tax" on houses worth more than £2m. 

The numbers will need to be scrutinised but the politics are perfect. The pledge distances Miliband from one of Gordon Brown's greatest mistakes, demonstrates his commitment to redistribution and splits the coalition. The Tories want a 10p tax rate but oppose a mansion tax; the Lib Dems want a mansion tax but oppose a 10p rate (preferring an even higher personal allowance of £12,500). 

Here's the key section from the speech: 

A One Nation Labour budget next month would lay the foundations for a recovery made by the many, not just a few at the top.

Let me tell you about one crucial choice we would make, which is different from this government.

We would tax houses worth over £2 million.

And we would use the money to cut taxes for working people.

We would put right a mistake made by Gordon Brown and the last Labour government.

We would use the money raised by a mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax, with the size of the band depending on the amount raised.

This would benefit 25 million basic rate taxpayers.

Moving Labour on from the past and putting Labour where it should always have been, on the side of working people.

The question now is how George Osborne will respond when he delivers the Budget on 20 March. David Cameron hinted at PMQs yesterday that the Chancellor would announce the return of the 10p tax rate but having ruled out the introduction of a mansion tax, he'll need to find another means of funding it. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are sceptical of the measure, arguing that a income tax threshold will do more to benefit the poorest.

As Lib Dem minister David Laws argued yesterday: "It's [raising the personal allowance] much simpler than having a 10p rate. It’s far more attractive to say to people on low incomes you won't pay any income tax until you earn a sensible amount of money. We’re even talking about raising it further in the next Parliament so people on minimum wage don’t pay any tax at all."

But whatever deal the coalition hammers out, Miliband's political masterstroke means Osborne now has no choice but to play a "trump card" at the Budget. 

Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to reintroduce the 10p tax rate abolished by Gordon Brown in his speech on the economy in Bedford. 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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