PMQs review: Cameron still lacks answers on living standards

If the PM wants to dismiss Miliband's energy price freeze as "a con", he needs to come up with a superior policy.

Ed Miliband arrived well armed at today's PMQs: food-bank use has tripled, pay growth is at its lowest level on record and the number of people working part-time because they can't find a full-time job has reached a new high. But after last week's floundering performance, David Cameron put up a better defence. He was able to boast that unemployment had fallen in every category and that there were now a million more people in work than in 2010 (a statistic you can expect to hear every day from now on). The PM also finally settled on a line of attack against Miliband's proposed energy price freeze, branding it a "price con". It is doubtful whether those forced to choose between heating and eating will agree, but this appeal to cynicism is an improvement on last week's red-baiting.

In response to Miliband's questions, all of which were on living standards, Cameron strikingly argued that the best way to improve voters' incomes is to "cut taxes". As was reported earlier this week, the Tories are set to mimic the Lib Dems and pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500. But for voters who are seeing their wages fall by an average of 2% in real-terms, a promise from the government to take a smaller chunk away is unlikely to prove sufficient. The Tories need a plan to increase the minimum wage and to spread use of the living wage, a subject on which they remain oddly silent.

If he wants to dismiss Miliband's energy policy as "a con", Cameron also needs to devise an attractive policy of his own. He currently boasts that the government is ensuring consumers are put on the lowest tariff but figures show that only 10% will benefit from this. Others in his party pin their hopes on a bonfire of green taxes and regulations but these account for just a fraction of the average bill. Polling shows that 75% of the public don't believe that rising bills are due to green levies. Miliband also delivered an effective riposte to the charge that his environmentalism was to blame for excessive prices: "They’ve been floundering all over the place and they blame the last government and green levies. Who was it who said: ‘I think green taxes as a whole need to go up’? It was him as leader of the opposition ... I look back at the record on the energy bill of 2010. Did he oppose the energy bill of 2010? No. He supported the energy bill of 2001. You could say, Mr Speaker, two parties working together in the national interest."

Until Cameron devises a policy with as much appeal as Miliband's price freeze, it is still Labour that will look like the party with answers on living standards.

David Cameron leaves Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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