Ed Miliband stands with his director of communications Bob Roberts as he waits to give an early morning television interview at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Confident Miliband passes the Today programme test

Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral speeches, the Labour leader has signature policies that he is prepared to defend.

After the conservative press responded to Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017 by branding him as a 1970s-style socialist and the energy companies warned of power blackouts, the Labour leader was called for the defence on the Today programme this morning.

To the former charge, he argued persuasively that it was Labour that was "the pro-competition party, the pro-market party" because it wanted "markets to succeed, not fail" by working "in the public interest". To the latter, he said that on "any reasonable scenario", the companies would be able to cope, implying that they were resorting to scare tactics. He conceded, however, that in the event of major price shocks, "companies could make their case to the government."

On the danger of firms hiking prices in advance of the election in order maximise their profits, he replied: "we will make sure that this is a genuine freeze and we will take action to make sure that happens." That implies that Labour would seek to peg prices to their 2014 level were companies to raise prices in 2015. Milband added that the freeze would not be extended beyond 2017 because he expected to have "reformed the energy market" by then.

One important test of a conference speech is whether it can withstand scrutiny the following day and Miliband ably cleared that hurdle this morning. Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral addresses, he came armed with signature policies that he was prepared to argue for. He has also adopted a notably softer and more measured speaking style.

By taking on the energy companies, Miliband is confident that he has picked a battle that can only have political benefits. In highlighting threats of blackouts from the sector, Tory MPs have walked straight into his trap by appearing to side with the companies over the consumers. Labour is confident that voters will agree that, in Miliband's words, "the fundamental problem at the heart of the market is that wholesale prices go up and people pay more, and wholesale prices go down and people still pay more."

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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