Nick Clegg during his debate with Nigel Farage on EU membership last night. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To burst the Farage bubble, Clegg needs to win hearts, not just heads

Next week, the Deputy PM needs some pointed barbs, a few more jokes and a lot more passion.

The Farage balloon was in full flight last night in the LBC debate, full of hot air and poisonous gases. Apparently, 485 million people are poised to arrive in Britain from all over the continent. Eighty million Germans want to break free from the hellholes that are Berlin and Munich, eager for the opportunity to sample the delights of Hansel and Pretzel on Ham Common; 10 million Belgians, sick to death of too many Godivas and desperate for a bar of Dairy Milk, are about to jump on a cross channel ferry. And, indeed, 60 million Brits must be readying themselves to nip over the water purely for the experience of sailing back into Dover, for they too are included in his "numbers" of folk who could be about to invade this sceptered isle.

Except, of course, it’s not going to happen. It’s a big scary number and that’s why Nigel Farage likes it – because he can frighten people with it. And for me that was the theme of the debate – Nigel trying to scare people into thinking his way. What would he want people to take from the debate last night I wonder? Twenty nine million Romanian and Bulgarians could be coming? Every family on the continent is going to come here and start claiming child benefit? The churches are going to be sued over equal marriage? Factories will be closed and your jobs transferred to Leipzig? And it’s going to cost you £55m a day? None of which is actually true. But that’s hardly the point.

Because this stuff sticks. Few folk will remember the facts and figures today. But they will recall the general tenor of the debate. Farage’s sweeping generalisations and grandiose statements against Nick’s more forensic grip on the actual facts – and in an emotional vs. rational debate, it’s generally the former that gets traction. And for me, that’s the challenge Nick has in the next debate. It’s easier to look passionate wrapped in a flag extolling the virtues of fish and chips, cups of tea and lashings of ginger beer than it is when you’re explaining that its better to be part of a trading group with a GDP of $16.6trn when on your own you’re the 8th or 9th largest economy, and China is five times bigger than you.

But that’s what it will take to burst the Farage bubble. Nick needs to come armed with some pointed barbs, a few more jokes and a lot more passion. He won the debate last night. But it’s not enough just to win the head. Next week, we need to win people’s hearts as well.

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

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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