The Lib Dems' shift left could be more dangerous for the Tories than Labour

With the Tories his party's main electoral foe, Clegg is seeking to woo the One Nation voters alienated by the Conservatives' UKIP tendency.

Chris Huhne has ventured in Juncture magazine that any Labour/Lib Dem coalition after the next election is likely to be based upon common agreement in the policy areas of tax, the environment and housing. Which would be grand if he’s right, as Lib Dem members seem to think that these three areas (plus jobs) should form the four key pillars of the 2015 manifesto.

And indeed the received wisdom is that Nick has moved left (much to the chagrin of certain high profile MPs) - remember the long list of things we’ve stopped the Tories doing in government announced at conference, the free school meals announcement, the agreement to look again at secret courts post 2015, the apparent acceptance that the bedroom tax might not be the best idea since sliced bread...

The differentiation strategy is in full swing and it looks like Nick has heeded the advice of Tim Farron when he said of left-leaning Lib Dem voters from 2010: "The people who are most likely to vote for you next time are the people who voted for you last time...You don’t write people off, they’re there to be persuaded to come back, or rather stay with us". 

So, it’s all guns blazing on the swing to the left. Or is it? I wonder if there isn’t another thought in the minds of Great George Street folk.

We’ve already tacitly accepted that 2015 is going to be tough for the Lib Dems and we’re in defensive mode. The second place party in the majority of our seats is the Tories, not Labour (38 vs. 19). Of our top 50 target seats, the majority are Tory. Of the 13 seats we lost in 2010 – in theory, the easiest for us to win back – no less than 10 fell to Tories.

Which is why I suspect what’s going on is less a lurch to the left but a small veer, designed to appeal to One Nation Tories alienated by the UKIP tendency in the Conservatives that seems to be in the ascendency. The sort of person who cares about the environment, who bought into "vote blue, go green" and now feels a little let down. The sort of voter who benefits most from the rise in the income tax threshold. The sort of voter who cares quite a lot about house prices and home ownership. The sort of voter Nick Boles had in mind when he suggested it might be time for a revival of the National Liberal Party – before it was pointed out that there already is one…

The environment. Tax. Housing. It’s what we’ll be fighting the next election on. But I wonder if it’s an agenda that should give David Cameron more sleepless nights that Ed Miliband?

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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