Alex Salmond addresses a Business for Scotland event on February 17, 2014 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The SNP should stop playing it safe on independence

The more radical the Yes campaign’s message becomes, the more likely it is to triumph in September. 

Nineteen years ago, Michael Forsyth said the creation of an Edinburgh parliament with tax-raising powers would lead to a "jobs holocaust" in Scotland. It was a classic piece of Tory hyperbole. In the run up to the 1997 referendum, the Conservative Party used every scare tactic, no matter how ridiculous, to push for a No vote. At one stage, Michael Ancram, its constitutional affairs spokesman, even appeared to compare devolution to fascism: "Like Churchill before the last war, we see the terrible dangers ahead and we give warning".

The Tories weren’t alone in issuing silly threats against home rule. Sir Alastair Grant, of Scottish and Newcastle breweries, argued that anything other than a fiscally toothless parliament would make the Scottish economy "significantly uncompetitive", while CBI Scotland howled about the dangers of "tartan taxes". Indeed, Scottish business as a whole seemed hostile to change. Not long before the vote, a poll for the Scotland on Sunday suggested 76 per cent of Scottish companies opposed devolution.

What was it Marx said about history, tragedy and farce? One month ago, Ben van Beurden, the chief executive of oil giant Shell, told his shareholders that he "valued the continuity and stability of the UK" and therefore wanted Scotland to remain in the Union. Van Beurden’s remarks came just a week or so after BP boss Bob Dudley said he thought "Great Britain should stay great", and only a few days after Standard Life and RBS revealed plans to move south if Scotland loses the pound after a Yes vote. Since then, Alliance Trust, Barclays and Aggreko have made similar noises.

To some extent, these interventions do little more than confirm a general – and fairly obvious – rule: business doesn’t like uncertainty. British companies are almost as uneasy about the prospect of the UK leaving the EU as they seem to be about Scotland leaving the UK. In 2013, the British Chambers of Commerce polled nearly 4,000 firms and found that more than 60 per cent of them wanted the UK to stay part of Europe (albeit with a renegotiated settlement). Ford, Renault and Unilever have all said they intend to scale back their British operations following any rupture with Brussels. This isn’t a comment on the merits of the European project. It’s simply a reaction to the threat of disruption.

However, the interventions also tell us something specific about nationalist strategy. The SNP’s "prawn cocktail offensive" – its ongoing attempt, since the early noughties, to persuade Scottish business figures that they have nothing to fear from the party or its overarching goal – isn’t working. For the last decade, the SNP has gone out of its way to coddle and reassure Scottish capital. It has promised to maintain the current system of UK-wide financial regulation. It has aggressively pursued a currency union. It has opposed a financial transactions tax at the European level. It has courted zero-hours employers such as Amazon. Bafflingly, it has even pledged to undercut the UK corporate tax rate by 3 per cent. And yet Scottish business (most of it anyway) remains pretty much wedded to the British state.

I expect the SNP’s efforts to "de-risk" independence to unravel further as the referendum approaches. Despite one unnamed UK minister raising the prospect of a deal over monetary union, Alex Salmond will struggle to hold the line on the currency for another five months. At some stage, he will have to lay out some sort of back-up plan in the event post-Yes talks fail to secure a formal "sterling zone" agreement. (The Fiscal Commission is already taking a "second look" at the alternatives.) Nor can the SNP go on blithely asserting that an independent Scotland will assume its EU membership under precisely the same conditions it enjoys as part of the UK.  Those conditions will be up for negotiation after a Yes vote.

But here’s the interesting thing: there’s no reason to believe any of this is going to damage the Yes campaign. Since the start of the year, Better Together has thrown everything at the nationalists, from Osborne’s belligerent currency rhetoric to repeated threats of capital flight to umpteen apocalyptic predictions about shipyard closures – and support for independence has steadily increased. My guess is that this trend is due to growing numbers of low-income Scots shifting from No and Undecided to Yes. These voters don’t benefit from the status quo. They don’t want to hear that an independent Scotland will look exactly the same as the current, unionist one. The more radical the Yes campaign’s message becomes, the more likely they are to turn out in force on 18 September. With the momentum shifting slowly but surely in favour of Yes, the SNP and its allies have no excuse for playing it safe anymore.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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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