Rory Stewart in the House of Commons.
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Senior Labour figures back Rory Stewart for top defence post

Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis endorse the Tory MP as defence select committee chair. 

One small but significant change to the way parliament works in recent years has been the election of chairs to select committees. Previously they were in the gift of party whips. The innovation has been welcomed by MPs who felt that the authority of the legislature had been systematically undermined by an over-mighty executive (although that is more of a hazard when one party has a commanding majority).

One such election happens tomorrow when a new chair will be named for the defence select committee. It is a significant post given the sensitivity of the issues in hand – the future of funding for armed forces in an era of budget austerity; rolling anxiety about Britain’s appetite for military intervention; rapidly shifting views of what constitutes a sensible strategic deployment of limited resources as the nature and scale of new threats emerge and old ones recede.

By predetermined allocation the job goes to a Conservative, but the race is fiercely competitive within that pool. All MPs get a vote, which means candidates have to demonstrate a capacity to work with opposition colleagues. Other attractive criteria include, naturally, experience and expertise in defence matters and a record of independence. The latter point is emphasised by those parliamentarians who see the committee chair as a place where policy rigour and free-thought must trump obedience to the party line.

An early favourite was Keith Simpson, a junior minister at the Foreign Office. Now the lead contenders are said to be Rory Stewart, an author, expert on Afghanistan and former diplomat in Iraq and Julian Lewis, a former front-bencher who shadowed the armed forces portfolio in opposition. Other candidates include Bob Stewart, a former Army officer and Julian Brazier, a junior minister under John Major and a territorial army veteran. At the back of the pack are Crispin Blunt, Tobias Elwood and James Gray.

Tory backers of Rory Stewart are today gladdened by a potentially vital intervention from the Labour camp. Three prominent opposition MPs – Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis – have backed Stewart in an email circulated to colleagues. The latter two signatories in particular will attract note since Ainsworth is a former Defence Secretary and Jarvis served in the Paras and is often cited as one of Labour’s stars-yet-to-rise. Whether their intervention makes a difference will become clear tomorrow. Meanwhile, the effusive tone of the endorsement makes interesting reading for followers of such matters:

 

Dear Colleagues,


We are writing to ask if you might support Rory Stewart to be Chair of the Defence Select Committee. He is a fresh and independent voice and a very thoughtful analyst of UK Defence Policy. He has challenged the government's Afghan strategy, calmly and with real impact. But he continues to argue ‎that interventions are sometimes – as in Bosnia or Rwanda - necessary.‎ He does this on the basis of a unique experience working in and with the military across all the major conflicts of the last two decades.


Having served briefly as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, he served with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, in Bosnia, in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign and in Iraq (where he as the deputy governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq). He then left the Foreign Office to set up an NGO, Turquoise Mountain, in Afghanistan. He spent three years living in Kabul establishing a clinic, a primary school, and leading an urban regeneration project. He was appointed Professor of Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School and lectures in Defence Colleges and universities in the US and Britain. He has written three books on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Intervention, focused on defence policy.


He has demonstrated over four years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he is a collegial, non-Partisan colleague with exceptional experience and knowledge of recent conflicts. He is not tied to the ‘Cold War’ but instead has reflected deeply on future challenges from Human Rights to Cyber-Security. We feel he would be a dedicated, intelligent, fair and open-minded Chair, never afraid to hold the government to account. We would be very grateful if you would consider voting for him.

 

With best wishes,

 

Tessa Jowell

Bob Ainsworth

Dan Jarvis

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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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