Eric Pickles is unpopular with Liverpool's mayor. Photo: Getty
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With friends like Eric Pickles in local government, who needs enemies?

A broader criticism can be made of Eric Pickles for his tenure as Communities Secretary, after he overturned a major planning decision in Liverpool.

Last week, Eric Pickles decided to overrule the independent Planning Inspectorate to reject one of our key regeneration projects here in Liverpool. The Welsh Streets area of the city, a run-down part of inner-city Toxteth, includes Ringo Starr’s old home, albeit one he lived in only briefly before ascending to greater things.

Heritage campaigners (mostly from outside the city) want to preserve these terraced houses, which are slated for demolition. Local people, who actually live in them, don’t. As one put it, the "heritage" of many of these homes is the misery of bronchitis. The cramped, damp conditions they live in, with few amenities, are something we desperately want to alleviate by selective demolition and the construction of new, fit-for-purpose family homes.

They were either furious or heart-broken to learn that Pickles had snatched away the opportunity to make their lives better. Needless to say, he’s never been near the place. It appears his priority was to get a headline about "saving" Ringo’s old home at the expense of prolonging the misery of an entire local community. For the residents of Welsh Streets, the curse of Pickles, in my opinion the worst local government minister in living memory, has struck again.

This case is just an illustration of the broader problem local government faces with the current Secretary of State. He seems to prefer mischief-making to navigating local government through the unprecedented cuts to our budgets and services.

Councils have, on average, seen their government funding reduced by a third since he became Communities’ Secretary. By 2017, Liverpool will actually have lost 58 per cent of its budget – some £330m. This is due to Pickles’ single most-damaging decision, borne of his eagerness to please (or his naiveté), when he caved in to Treasury pressure back in 2010 and accepted a spending envelope that has simply decimated local government. His inability to fight his corner in Whitehall has cost us dearly.

Councils provide too many frontline services and too many vulnerable people and communities are dependent on us to carry this lame duck Secretary of State who remains oblivious to the fallout from his unfocused and ideological tenure at DCLG.

Unfocused because his arbitrary interventions from Whitehall show him up for the dabbler he is. As well as his fondness for micro-managing planning decisions there was his plan to allow motorists to park on double-yellow lines for up to 15 minutes. This was quietly dropped when the public consultation showed people were opposed to it.

Then there was his flagship scheme to "help" councils retain weekly bin collections. Nowhere has taken him up on the offer. Not when councils had to sign up for three years and he would only fund the first twelve months.

But as the residents of Welsh Streets have found out, the big problem is that Pickles just doesn’t "get" localism (which is all the more surprising as he is a former council leader himself). The gap between him and, say, Michael Heseltine, or Greg Clark, or George Osborne is now a chasm. On paper at least, the Chancellor knows the importance of cities and their local economies in driving growth. He still needs to put his money where his mouth but, conceptually, he is in the right place with calls for a “Northern Powerhouse” and HS3.

But Pickles is a bit-part player in all these big, strategic, long-term discussions. Thankfully, we are now at the tail-end of this parliament and I, as someone who works in local government, hope that his disastrous reign of confusion and incompetence is coming to an end.

“I get by with a little help from my friends,” sang Ringo. With "friends" like Eric Pickles, local government doesn’t need enemies.

Joe Anderson is Labour Mayor of Liverpool

Joe Anderson is Mayor of Liverpool. 

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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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