Labour activists photobomb the Liberal Democrat's poster unveiling. Photo: Getty
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How a Liberal Democrat might talk about the coalition without winding up Labour?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been at odds - but what if things were different? A Labourite explains how the Liberals should talk about the past five years in order to build friendships with Labour.

It was clear from the results of the 2010 election that the British people wanted a change of government. The parliamentary arithmetic for keeping Labour in office was unworkable. The economic situation was becoming ever more worrying, with the risk that the European banking crisis was turning into a sovereign debt crisis. Britain needed a stable government that would see out a full term of office, and the only way it was going to get one was if we made some painful compromises and came to an agreement with the Conservatives. The choice at that point was not between the Conservatives' economic strategy and our own, or Labour's - the choice was between the Conservatives' strategy and no strategy at all. We make no apology for putting the national interest first. Even in such difficult times, we insisted on doing some important groundwork for a fairer and more sustainable society, such as the upil Premium, railway investment and planting forests rather than selling them off.

New Labour had been able to fund improving public services by taxing a lightly regulated financial sector, but the crash of 2008 revealed how flawed this strategy was in the long term. Immediately after the crash it was necessary to stop recession becoming a Great Depression by boosting spending and running a deficit but everyone in the real world, including Alistair Darling, knew that some difficult choices were going to be needed to cope with the permanent fall in tax revenues. This government has delivered what Alistair Darling set out to do before the election - halved the deficit. Labour's choices would have been different - and indeed if the Liberal Democrats had won the election ours would have been different. But the fact remains that the economy is in a better state than it was in 2010 and we stand by the broad choices we made. We did not get everything right – no government ever does – and we have learned a lot from our experience of government.

The key question is what to do next.

We welcome what Ed Balls has said about Labour's commitment to sound finance. If the electorate give us a position of responsibility in the next parliament we will make sure that Labour sticks to that commitment and do not shirk the tough decisions that will come.  We also want to keep the pressure on Labour to deliver a really fair society and not pursue headline-chasing policies that would be counter-productive for equality of opportunity. To Labour we say: opposition is easy. Governing in tough times, as we have learned the hard way, is the test of your mettle.

We are very worried about what the Conservatives are proposing. There is nothing economically prudent about promising unfunded tax cuts and ring-fencing areas of spending at the drop of a hat while proposing drastic cuts to many of the public services that give people the platform to bring up their families and get on in life. In the next parliament, we will ensure that the next government does not hack away at the public services that are the foundation of a strong economy that delivers a better life for everyone. To the Conservatives we say: we can agree on reducing the deficit, but we will not join an ideological crusade.

We do not regard Labour as the infallible authority on how to create a fairer society, and we certainly do not trust the Conservatives to sustain a stronger economy during the next parliament. We talk about a stronger economy and a fairer society not as a piece of positioning between two other parties, but because these are our fundamental values.

The choice is up to the British people. In 2010 they chose the Conservatives, but wisely did not trust them with an overall majority. It fell to us Liberal Democrats to provide stability rather than years of crisis. We achieved many things that we wanted, but we also had to respect the majority party's view in important areas - that is simply how coalition works. Politicians and the media should know better than to whip up scares about the SNP holding the whip hand – a hung parliament obviously did not produce chaos or the dictatorship of the smaller coalition partner in 2010! We believe in being mature when it is necessary to work with people we don't always agree with.

This article is one of a two-part series. Its counterpart can be read here.

Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit, and former director of research at the Electoral Reform Society.

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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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