Commons Confidential: Who’s laughing now?

Plus: Bad news for Ivan Lewis.

Photographs of a giggling David Cameron and George Osborne are Ed Miliband’s secret weapon. The shots of the Laurel and Hardy of the Con-Dem coalition laughing their heads off in the House of Commons trigger the strongest anti-Tory reaction when Labour hands round the snaps in focus groups. Government is viewed as a serious business and the photos reinforce the image of Dave the Dandy and Boy George as a couple of out-of-touch Bullingdon toffs. Labour is discussing how to exploit this. Deckchair Dave’s rave in Ibiza post-Woolwich will have heightened the PM’s vulnerability to suggestions that he’s more interested in spare time than in work time.

Tory chatter is growing that Cameron may recycle Andrew Mitchell. The former chief whip, forced to resign after an altercation with a Downing Street police officer, has retained his old office on a cabinet corridor behind the Speaker’s Chair. The failure to eject Mitchell is viewed as evidence that Cameron has a guilty conscience and might give him a job, should he be absolved of Plebgate.

Bad news for Ivan Lewis: Lembit Öpik was mistaken for the shadow international development secretary. I overheard a Labour MP’s former researcher say, “Oh, there’s Ivan Lewis,” in the Strangers’ Bar. Alas, it was a false spotting. Your correspondent looked up to see the Libido Democrat, not the Labourite, barging through the door. There is an uncanny physical resemblance, but if the pair were separated at birth they’ve gone different ways. Öpik the Cheeky Boy is an attention-grabber, while Lewis just gets on with the job.

To Cardiff Bay for a Welsh Assembly seminar on the “democratic deficit”, otherwise known as a whinge about the media. Assembly members feel neglected, especially by British national papers. They’re wrong if they believe extra column inches automatically lead to voters in polling booths. Turnout in the 2011 assembly elections, at 42 per cent, was higher than the 38 per cent for the exhaustively covered Ken v Boris battle for London. The turnout among 60 AMs, by the way, was 1.67 per cent, with only the Tory David Melding, the deputy presiding officer, attending the morning bout.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Treasury minister, wins an award for being Labour’s best networker. Hers was the first handwritten note of congratulations received by a wannabe Labour MEP. Good manners and clever politics, should Reeves ever wish to run for the party leadership.

Male snappers in need of equality education shouted, “Squeeze up, girls,” when Harriet Harman posed for a photograph with Labour women outside the Commons. The thin smile on Sister Harriet’s face said she’d heard it all before but wasn’t going to bite.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Montage: Dan Murrell/NS

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496