The Syria vote was a triumph of parliamentary sovereignty

Votes such as last night's are no longer mere rubber stamps but a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

There are several significant angles to last night's Commons vote on Syria. Foreign policy experts look at Britain’s role in the world and our relationship with the United States; domestic politicos look through the prism of party politics, asking who came out better between Miliband and Cameron. Meanwhile, Syria continues to suffer and we can only now hope that inaction is the lesser of two evils.

But amid the fallout, easily obscured by the more obvious issues of the day, is a seismic shift in the British constitution, an evolution that has crept up quietly but which serves to empower Parliament and constrain the executive. 

While the Prime Minister officially retains the Royal Prerogative to declare war, it is clear that this power is now tempered by the convention that Parliament must vote on the matter beforehand.

Previous votes on Iraq and Libya, while contentious, saw the government of the day validated by the Commons. Before this it had been understood that the executive had a right and duty to declare war as it saw fit. The real test of this innovation was whether a government convinced of the need for military action would respect a vote that opposed it.

The fact that Cameron had to promise the House that it would have a second vote, the fact he has now changed course so dramatically – while retaining the right to declare war - shows that votes like this are not simply rubber stamps but have become a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

Ironically, by calling an unprecedented vote on Iraq, Tony Blair, the most presidential of prime ministers, set in place an innovation that created a precedent largely devolving 'war powers' from the executive to the legislature.

Frustrating for many, our uncodified constitution is nevertheless pragmatic and far from conventions being ignored (as many fear has increasingly happened) a new one that curtails government power has clearly entrenched itself.

In the Lords, former generals, admirals, defence secretaries and ambassadors urged caution, while the debate in the Commons was marked by many MPs speaking of their constituents’ concerns. Some cheap politicking (from both benches) aside, the standard of debate was high and the tone respectful.

Whether one agrees with the outcome or not, the vote was a reassertion of Parliamentary sovereignty – a message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides. Indeed, many MPs spoke of this as a retreat from British presidentialism and a return to the PM being primus inter pares.

It is now unthinkable that Cameron would disregard Parliament’s wishes. Likewise, his deference to the Commons and his claim to have listened further entrenches the precedent that any future Prime Minister would have to call a similar vote on military action.

In my view, reserve powers of Royal Prerogative should remain with the Executive in case a Prime Minster must act immediately before explaining himself or herself to the House. But it is now clear that any premeditated military action will rightly require the approval of Parliament.

The British constitution is something that has grown organically over the last thousand years. It has survived because it has evolved; its imperfections have been mitigated by its flexibility. This latest stage in its evolution has something to say of our present and of our past. It speaks to a country disillusioned with foreign interventions, war-weary and cautious of unknown consequences. But fundamentally it also reasserts an ancient British principle: Parliament is sovereign.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

"A message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides". Photograph: Getty Images.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

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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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