The green shoots of Lib Dem recovery are appearing

South Shields was a terrible result, but the party is performing well in its parliamentary strongholds.

I was all set for a bit of spleen venting this morning when I woke up to be greeted with the South Shields by-election result. And let’s not pretend that any result in which your vote share drops by 13 percentage points, you’re beaten into seventh by (among others) the BNP, your coalition partner loses masses of support to the new girl in town and still loses less of its share of the vote than you do, and you finish just 155 votes ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party, is nothing less than appalling. South Shields was a terrible result for the Lib Dems by any measure.

But actually, I can’t quite bring myself to give it both barrels. Because whisper it gently, but so far, the other council election results indicate the green shoots of recovery in the Lib Dems' support.

Now, those green shoots may have a certain straw-like quality as I clutch at them but so far, we seem set to lose only around half the number of seats suggested by the Rallings and Thrasher forecasts. And more to the point, we’re doing well in areas that reflect where we hold Parliamentary seats – taking around 33 per cent of the vote (to the Tories' 31 per cent and UKIP's 22 per cent).  Given the party looks set to adopt a ‘keep what we’ve got’ strategy for 2015, we look on track to achieve just that. And so far we’re taking around 16 per cent of the overall vote, which, given recent polls, many in the party would bite your hand off to achieve.

Plus there’s more good news for the Lib Dems - the success of UKIP. If UKIP were to take 25 per cent of the vote across the country in a general election, the chances are they’d take… 0 seats. The lowest winning vote share in 2010 was 29.4 per cent, higher than UKIP has ever achieved in a Westminster poll. Which says two things if you’re a Lib Dem. Firstly, UKIP (not a party which we have much in common with) may reduce the Tory vote, helping us to beat them, but are unlikely to win themselves. And were UKIP and the Lib Dems to jointly achieve 40 per cent in a general election and end up with a handful of seats,  the pressure to reopen the electoral reform debate would be almost irresistible…

There are plenty of results still to come in yet and lots of opportunities for it all to go pear shaped. And even if it doesn’t, losing another swathe of council seats to a party that bets the house on the grassroots ground machine is no laughing matter.

But so far things are looking ok. Though I won't be wearing orange if I’m in South Shields any time soon.

Nick Clegg makes a speech during the opening day of the Liberal Democrat spring party conference in March. 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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