Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron speaks at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Clegg's leadership not under threat if Lib Dems wiped out in European elections

Party president also says Lib Dems will not withdraw from the coalition.

If the Liberal Democrats lose most or all of their MEPs in next week's European elections, and endure a similar thrashing in the locals, there will be calls from some in the party for Nick Clegg to be replaced as leader and for the party to withdraw from the coalition. Lord Oakeshott, a close ally of Vince Cable, who has previously demanded Clegg's departure, recently said that the Lib Dems should leave government "straight after" the results. 

But when I spoke to party president Tim Farron, one of the frontrunners to lead the Lib Dems after Clegg, he told me that "neither of those are even on the table". On Clegg, he said: "He's very, very popular within the party, he's got very strong support at all levels and I think there's a great sense, in a very Paddy Ashdown-esque way, that Nick has done difficult things that were right. 

"Paddy led the party for 12 years and could have gone on for longer...It was largely because of the great sense that he spoke to the heart of the party, he stood up for difficult issues, sometimes unpopular but always principled, and he did the right thing. There's a great sense that the same is said of Nick, not just on Europe but on civil liberties issues and, indeed, going into government at all. It would have been far easier and safer for him to have wimped out and let there be a Tory minority adminstration. Instead, he did what was difficult for him and the party and went in, and people really admire that and respect that, and support that."

The reference to Ashdown is apposite. Sources point to Clegg's appointment of his mentor as general election campaign chair as one reason for his continued survival. "Every time there's a crisis, Paddy's on the news channel", one notes. Just as Peter Mandelson shored up Gordon Brown's position in times of trouble, so Ashdown serves as Clegg's political life support machine. 

The Lib Dem leader's team have also been carefully managing expectations, refusing to rule out the possibility of a wipeout in the Euros and ensuring that all sides are brought into the tent. 

On the coalition, Farron said: "We've battled for four years through some incredibly difficult times for the party and the country and it now very strongly appears that the tough and controversial decisions that we took over that last four years are now paying off. It would be pretty barmy to, just at the moment that it's working, want to somehow disown what we've done both in terms of the man who inspires us and leads us and our membership of the coalition. 

"I don't think either of those things will be or should be in question at all. I love Matthew Oakeshott, I think he's a very, very good person and if he didn't exist you'd have to invent him. But at the same time, I regularly and to his face disagree with him on both of these issues."

Despite what will almost certainly be one of the worst nights the Lib Dems have ever endured, with the party's councillor base likely to fall below 2,000 for the first time since its creation, the odds are on Clegg remaining as leader. This is not least because none of the potential replacements - Farron, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Jeremy Browne - have any desire to lead the party into the toughest general election it has faced for years. Far better to begin the hard work of reconstruction at a later date. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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.

0800 7318496