Far from lurching to the left, Labour continues to modernise

Market failure in tough times should not simply be shrugged off. Our political opponents’ scaremongering is a sign of our strength.

In his last speech to Labour Party conference in 2006 Tony Blair said this:

"10 years ago, I would have described re-linking the basic state pension with earnings as old Labour. By 2012, we aim to do it. 10 years ago, if you'd have asked me to put environmental restrictions on business, I would be horrified. Today, I'm calling for it. I would have baulked at restrictions to advertise junk food to children. Today I say that unless a voluntary code works, we will legislate for it."

He was right then and we are right now. Market failure in tough times should not simply be shrugged off. What’s needed is a hard-headed dose of common sense, not ideology that lets the British people suffer. I’ve not seen many British commentators describing Angela Merkel’s interventions in the economy as 1980s socialism.

The great, late Philip Gould would tell us that the modernisation project is a constantly evolving beast. If we are to 'own the future', we must adapt to the changing concerns and aspirations of the British people. As well as leading opinion and reaching consent, governing is also about listening and taking on the concerns of voters. That is exactly what this week has been about.

'Hard-pressed families' is not just a sound bite - it’s a reality for so many of my constituents in Liverpool West Derby. Prices are outstripping wages, energy prices continue to rise and childcare costs mean that some parents are paying to go to work. David Cameron’s cost of living crisis has come about, as Ed said, because of a race to the bottom. Time and again, David Cameron has shown that he is strong at taking a stand against the weak but is weak when confronted by the powerful vested interests- whether the banks, the energy companies or the Murdoch press.

But under Ed Miliband, Labour has shown this week that we are on the side of hard working families and, crucially, that we will not duck the tough choices to make a better Britain.

Freezing energy prices, lowering tax rates for small businesses, extending universal childcare for three and four-year-olds to 25-hours a week. All diligently costed policies. But we are not surprised at the response from those quarters better off with Cameron’s status quo. That must not detract us.

So while Conservatives peddle the myth that Labour is lurching to the left or going backwards, we should take comfort in the knowledge that this is far from the truth. That it is in fact the case that our political opponents’ scaremongering is a sign of our strength. This week’s conference in Brighton delivered a raft of policies showing how a future Labour government will support hard-pressed families. I know from my conversations with members of the public I met in Brighton and on my way home that people are awake to Labour’s offer. It is now the job of all of us in the Labour Party to take this message out on the doorstep and in our communities.

Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour Party conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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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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