Osborne must be bold to show the Tories are not "the party of the rich"

The Chancellor should use his Autumn Statement to reward families on modest incomes who have quietly endured squeezed living standards during austerity.

Come on, George. Be bold. Today, the Chancellor needs to throw caution to the wind and announce bold policies that reward families on modest incomes who have quietly endured squeezed living standards during austerity.

The polling is clear; sceptical voters, especially on more modest incomes and outside the Tories' southern heartlands, still suspect that they are 'the party of the rich'. The politically flawed decision to reduce the top rate of income tax to 45% didn’t help. Electoral progress is thwarted by this deep-seated perception of the party. We need game-changing policies that convince people otherwise. No calculated triangulation. No clever traps for Labour. Enough of all that. Osborne needs to deliver an Autumn Statement which ordinary folk up and down the country will remember.

Same-sex marriage, of course, was meant to make people think twice about the Tories, to demonstrate that the party is comfortable with modern Britain and compassionate; concerned about more than just money and self-advancement. To complement this social modernisation, we now need economic modernisation: which shows the Tories are behind those people trying to keep their heads above the water, who have had to put up with stagnant wages and rising prices fornearly a decade. Time to really support them.

Conservatives should be behind those people working hard to get into the labour market, onto the housing ladder and succeed in the world of business. Behind those knocking on the door, not those sat in their armchairs of privilege. So, drop the clampdown on those on working-aged benefits. For it will backfire, as the growing sympathy towards the unemployed in the British Social Attitudes survey demonstrates. Instead, set out a positive vision that helps people really trying to get in, and then get on in, work.

Some repeat claimants of jobseekers allowances should be rewarded with a financial bonus from government for securing employment within a shorter time period. Pay for this carrot by means-testing universal benefits such as free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance, something even the majority of pensioners now want.

All families who work should have 85% of their childcare costs covered by the government through Universal Credit, including those currently excluded because they are earning below the personal tax allowance. Similarly, basic-rate taxpayers should be eligible for a higher proportion of their childcare costs than the 20% to be covered through the new tax free childcare voucher scheme. These could be paid for by reducing the number of extremely high earners eligible for the new scheme.

Continue to raise the personal tax allowance; commit to it being £12,500 in the next parliament. Increase the income threshold for employee National Insurance contributions. And, do something the public would not expect Tories do to: raise the minimum wage, significantly and sensibly, for certain sectors and businesses.

Get behind those young people wanting to get on the housing ladder. Reduce stamp duty significantly for less expensive properties. And demand local authorities guarantee enough land for the self-building of houses, and encourage it within their area, or else lose their veto over new developments.

Finally, get behind the entrepreneurs, the small business owners working day and night to balance the books and really get the company off the ground. Exempt small businesses from rises to business rates. And increase the Employment Allowance for employers’ contributions to National Insurance.

We need to show the Conservative Party is gunning for ordinary folk wanting to get on in the labour market, the housing market and the world of business.

Ryan Shorthouse is director of Bright Blue

A television camera films speeches in the Manchester Central venue during the Conservative Party Conference on September 29, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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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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