The other Lib Dem by-election triumph: Berrylands

The party's victory over the Tories in last night's council by-election in London offers even greater evidence of Lib Dem resilience.

In light of last night’s by-election triumph (and our political editor’s written permission to show off a little), I’d like to accept the opportunity to say that our victory demonstrates why the rumours of a Lib Dem wipeout in 2015 have been wildly exaggerated. Berrylands was exactly the sort of seat the Tories should be winning, a relatively affluent corner of the world with a strong Conservative showing in the 2010 election and the sad loss of the previous Lib Dem office holder removing the incumbency factor. It should have been a shoe-in for the Tories.

That’s right, not Eastleigh. Berrylands. Don’t get me wrong, Eastleigh is a brilliant result – and it’s a victory for the grass roots, who flooded into the area from all over the country, joined phone banks if they couldn’t make it down there, or made big financial contributions to the cause. But it’s not in itself proof of the resilience of the Lib Dems. Because the amazing Eastleigh operation can’t be repeated in 2015 – there simply aren't enough feet to put on the ground.

But the Berrylands by-election, which also took place yesterday in Surbiton, south west London, is a much better demonstration of the resilience of the Lib Dem brand. A vacant Lib Dem seat in a Lib Dem-controlled council with a Lib Dem MP, it was a true test of the incumbency effect, not least because so many party activists were in Eastleigh, that the local team will have found themselves sadly stretched.

And as one notable Lib Dem resident noted, it’s not like the other parties didn’t take the Berrylands election seriously. They threw major resources at it. 

And even in Eastleigh, the Tories were thinking of Berrylands – here’s Maria Hutchings's final written tweet last night…

The Lib Dem candidate was local, the campaign was fought on local issues. And the net result – a Lib Dem hold on 38 per cent of the vote. And the Tories cursing the rise of the UKIP vote locally. I don’t know if this rings any bells with anyone?

Eastleigh means last night was a great night for the Lib Dems. Berrylands means the Tories should take a look at the Grant Shapps target seat list, full of Lib Dem-Tory marginals – and think again.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference

Liberal Democrat Eastleigh by-election candidate Mike Thornton celebrates his win with Nick Clegg at the Hampshire County Cricket ground on March 1, 2013 in Eastleigh, Hampshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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