The Lib Dems should be wary of becoming the dull middle men of British politics

While Clegg's party looks increasingly conformist, the Tories are moving into a coherent right-wing position for 2015.

If anyone thought the best way to herd Tory backbenchers back into line was a stiff telling off from Nick Clegg, then they were always destined to be disappointed. But I don’t suppose that was ever the real intention. It was probably more about two other things – ensuring the junior member of the coalition looked more adult (and more disciplined) than the senior side – and winding Tory MPs up to such an extent they go off on one and make a bit of a show of themselves. Again.

The latter hope seemed doomed to failure – surely Nick of all people waving the red rag at those Conservative backbench bulls was just too obvious a strategy, and they wouldn’t fall for it. But no, I’m wrong. John Redwood has manfully stepped up to the plate, pawing the ground, snorting with fury – and blaming all the woes of the world on the Lib Dems  - all this time wasted on boundary revisions, House of Lords reform, the AV referendum - our fault apparently.

Seeing as the political shenanigans of the last fortnight have been Tory-inspired (Euro referendums and splits on equal marriage), this seems a bit rich. But it also points to something else. That the Conservative backbenches remain fiercely unhappy with being in coalition and resent Lib Dem-inspired policy just as much as they resent not getting their own way on what they view as core Tory themes.

Now, while at present this makes them look a tad like the swivel-eyed half of the coalition, I don’t wonder if, come a general election, it won’t begin to play well. While the Tories may be responding to the UKIP threat more than anything else, I am beginning to wonder if, entirely by accident, it’s the Tories who are moving towards a coherent position for 2015, while we in the Lib Dems look like the straight laced, steady as you go, slightly conformist middle men.

In this age of rejection of the identikit politician, could it be that, in looking like a slightly more coherent version of the fastest growing political force in the country, the Tory right are getting into a position where they can pull all sorts of rabbits from hats?

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

Nick Clegg speaks during a press conference at Admiralty House in London. 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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