David Cameron speaks during a visit to Kingsmead School on February 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron rides roughshod over Miliband again

The Tory leader's exuberant confidence allowed him to dominate the chamber. 

The Tories are purring with confidence at the moment. Their dominance of the media war and new-found unity means that they are scenting victory (even as the polls continue to show them neck-and-neck with Labour or slightly behind). 

The evidence of this was on display at today's PMQs. Ed Miliband asked David Cameron about preferential tax treatment for hedge funds (they are not required to pay stamp duty on their share transactions), linking the policy to the Tories' industry donors. But Cameron swatted his question away with effortless superiority. He questioned why "for 13 years, during many of which he was in the Treasury, they did absolutely nothing about this", before declaring, in reference to Ed Balls's Newsnight interview: "I have to say I'm delighted he's raised the economy on the morning after his shadow chancellor couldn't name one single business leader who backed Labour." 

At this point, the well-drilled Tory backbenches began chanting in unison: "Bill, Bill" and "Where's Bill?" (the first name of the business leader Balls almost remembered). Their barracking  persisted throughout Miliband's second question and they were rewarded with a first-rate Cameron gag: "Do you know what he said, Mr Speaker? He said: 'Bill Somebody.' Mr Speaker, Bill Somebody’s not a person; Bill somebody is Labour’s policy." Cheers erupted behind him. The Labour benches, meanwhile, already becalmed by the grim news from Scotland, were deathly silent. 

Miliband fought valiantly on, pressing Cameron to answer, but the PM had too much ammunition in reserve: the confusion over Labour's tuition fees policy, the tax avoidance of their donor John Mills, even the news that "the person who wrote that 'Things Can Only Get Better' says it no longer applies to Labour." The only moment of relief for Miliband came when he archly observed, as George Osborne sought to brief Cameron on tax policy: "You can't help him, George, you're too far away". 

But while the Labour leader was routed in the chamber, he can hope that Cameron's evasiveness hurts the PM in the country. His refusal to pledge to close the tax loophole (as Labour has done) risks reinforcing the Tories' reputation as the party of the rich (the greatest barrier to a majority). As they deride Labour's weaknesses, the Conservatives would do well not to forget their own. 

Outside of the main exchanges, a notable moment came when Labour MP and shadow justice minister Dan Jarvis questioned Cameron about support for a solar panel business in his Barnsley constituency. The respectful silence with which he was heard was a good example of why many believe he could one day lead his party. 

George Eaton is 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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