Five million dollars in cash. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Leader: The 1 per cent and the masses

The thesis developed by Capital author Thomas Piketty is set to be vindicated, with the most prominent critiques of inequality now economic.

Based on current trends, as research by Oxfam has found, a remarkable new threshold will be passed next year: the richest 1 per cent will own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth. The corollary is worth stating: the remaining 99 per cent will own less than half.

Inequality fell immediately after the 2008 financial crisis as incomes at the top and in the middle declined more sharply than those at the bottom (the poor having less to lose and being partly insulated by social security). But it has risen since, as quantitative easing has inflated asset prices, fiscal austerity has eroded welfare benefits and wages have remained depressed. The thesis developed by the French economist Thomas Piketty – that the gap will widen as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth rate of the economy – appears destined for vindication.

The usual objections to inequality are moral. For Karl Marx, it represented the corrosion of our common humanity and the denial to workers of the products of their labour. For John Rawls, a society that did not redound to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged was one that no rational, self-interested individual would accept unless he or she was behind a “veil of ignorance”.

But the most prominent critiques of inequality are now economic. From the IMF, the OECD and the Bank of England, the message has gone out that the wealth gap is bad for growth. The uneven distribution of rewards threatens economic stability (as the poor are forced to borrow to maintain their living standards), reduces productivity and undermines social mobility. A recent study from the OECD estimated that the UK economy would be roughly 20 per cent larger if the gap between the rich and the poor had not become a chasm in the 1980s. It found that “income inequality has a sizeable and statistically negative impact on growth” and that “redistributive policies achieving greater equality in disposable income have no adverse growth consequences”.

It is this that explains why a subject once regarded as a leftist talking point again features on the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos, with 14 measures proposed to narrow the gap. Among them are more progressive systems
of taxation, increased trade union membership, higher minimum wages and greater investment in public services. Such remedies would once have appeared banal, but in the post-Thatcherite landscape they can seem daringly radical. The very legitimacy of the state as an economic actor is a belief that has to be fought for.

In the years since the crash, governments have focused on the immediate task of ensuring macroeconomic stability by repairing banking systems and reducing fiscal deficits. But as recovery takes hold, most notably in the US and the UK, it is right to ask more profound questions about the shape of modern capitalism. Rather than the trickle-down economics of recent decades, global leaders need to rediscover the virtues of Keynesian “trickle-up”. By increasing the disposable incomes of the poorest, governments and businesses will help to generate the growth on which capitalism depends. It is time for states not merely to listen but to act.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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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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