George Osborne settles defence budget ahead of Spending Review

A deal was done between the Chancellor and the Defence Secretary to settle the Ministry of Defence's budget for 2015-16 late on Saturday night.

The Ministry of Defence budget for 2015-16 has been agreed ahead of the Spending Review, George Osborne has said.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, he told stand-in presenter Sophie Raworth that the deal was done "last night" and defended how close to the wire these decisions are being made, saying that "in the past these things were often done the night before the spending round." To stick to his own economic plan, the Chancellor must announce £11.5bn of Whitehall cuts to Parliament on Wednesday.

The cuts agreed to by the MoD will result in the civilian headcount being reduced while the armed forces remain at the same level, BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reported. Osborne has also said that the fines from the Libor bank interest rate-fixing scandal will go to schemes to benefit war veterans and their families.

Further complications became apparent this morning as seven former defence chiefs published a letter in the Observer, calling on the Prime Minister to resist pressure from the MoD to allow the military to dip into the aid budget to make up shortfalls elsewhere. They describe the ring-fenced aid budget as "critical to the UK's national interests".

Agreeing the cuts to the defence budget was a major hurdle for the Treasury to clear ahead of the Spending Review - as my colleague George Eaton wrote back in February, the idea that the MoD must find cuts while the aid budget remains ringfenced was a difficult pill to swallow for many Conservative MPs.

However, defence is not the last department to settle - Vince Cable's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills is still holding out. On the Marr Show, Osborne claimed that he and Cable were still "arguing about the small details" but denied that there was a "massive argument" going on with his Lib Dem cabinet colleague.

That isn't quite the story coming out of the Cable camp, however - the Observer reports today that the Business Secretary was in "no mood to back down in a dispute he regards as crucial to the government's economic credibility". The problem, it is suggested, is that the differences between Vince Cable and the Treasury run deeper than just quibbles over a few numbers here or there. Cable insists the coalition needs "a strong story to tell on growth" as well as emphasis on the necessity to cut. In accordance with this, he is reportedly pushing for investment in science, skills and training.

This is not a new direction for Cable. In an essay for the New Statesman in March 2013 entitled "When the facts change, should I change my mind?", he set out his hesitations with the coalition's economic policy, particularly in the area of growth and capital spending. He wrote:

The more controversial question is whether the government should not switch but should borrow more, at current very low interest rates, in order to finance more capital spending: building of schools and colleges; small road and rail projects; more prudential borrowing by councils for housebuilding.

Osborne is expected to put some emphasis on infrastructure spending in Wednesday's Spending Review, but Cable seems to be holding out for specific investment for his own department.

Exactly when, and how, Cable and Osborne will be able to resolve what appear to be fundamental intellectual differences, remains to be seen.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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