The growth-shaped hole in the Queen's Speech

There was little in the speech to revive growth and employment this side of the election. But can Labour take advantage?

The Queen's Speech was proof that David Cameron has taken Lynton Crosby's advice to scrape "the barnacles off the boat" and focus on what he regards as voters' core concerns: the economy, immigration, welfare reform and education. Out went the international aid bill, the "snoopers' charter", minimum alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes. In came bills limiting immigrants' access to public services and benefits, making it easier to deport foreign criminals and giving the government new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour. In another concession to the right, the speech made no reference to the equal marriage bill (which was introduced in the last session and is being carried over), although the energy bill, which is similarly being carried over, was mentioned. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg will point to bills introducing a £72,000 cap on social care costs, a single-tier pension scheme and High Speed Two as proof that the coalition is not short on ambition. But the social care and pensions measures aren't due to take effect until 2016 (so after the next general election), while the high speed rail project won't be completed until 2033. In the short-term, both Cameron and Clegg's fortunes will hinge on the performance of the economy, and here the speech was decidedly lacking. 

"My Government’s legislative programme will continue to focus on building a stronger economy," it read (almost as if the double-dip recession, the loss of Britain's AAA credit rating and the £245bn increase in forecast borrowing never happened), promising "the creation of more jobs and opportunities". But aside from the new £2,000 Employment Allowance for small businessses, there was little with the potential to stimulate growth and job creation. It is here that Labour will concentrate its attack in this afternoon's debate. Last week, Ed Miliband unveiled an alternative Queen's Speech, which included the creation of a British Investment Bank, a temporary VAT cut, a one year national insurance holiday for small firms and a jobs guarantee for every adult out of work for more than two years and every young person out of work for more than a year. But Labour's reluctance to make the case for a short-term increase in borrowing (highlighted by Peter Hain today) has left it struggling to take advantage of the coalition's inertia. After a mixed set of local election results and the first hints of a Tory recovery since the "omnishambles" Budget, Miliband needs a strong performance today to earn him the political breathing space he requires. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech. 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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