Forever in his shadow: George Osborne has yet to achieve the more modest targets of his predecessor, Alistair Darling. Photo: Getty Images
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Budget 2015: George Osborne misses his targets again

George Osborne has offered some reprieve on austerity. Let’s hope it gets used wisely.

The usual politics of elections might dictate promising lots of goodies during the campaign and tightening the purse strings once safely in Government. George Osborne appears to have somewhat turned this upside down. The Conservative manifesto promised to eliminate borrowing by 2018-19. Today’s budget speech pushed back the deadline to 2019-20.

Annual day-to-day departmental spending is to be cut by just under £18 billion by 2019-20, or around five per cent in real terms. That doesn’t sound too bad: the OBR says that no year will see cuts as severe as in 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, not all is rosy. Where public spending goes is still seeing big changes. Promises for some public services will mean difficult choices for others. The NHS is to receive an extra £10 billion in real terms by 2020-21, and the MoD budget is to rise by 0.5 per cent in real terms a year. Prior to the election, promises were made on schools funding and international aid. Taken together, this could mean day-to-day spending rising by just under £10 billion by 2019-20 in some areas.

So other public services will still need to make substantial savings to pay for money going to the NHS, schools, aid and defence. However, departments will have more time to find the full savings needed, with the deadlines now pushed back. That’s important because after the last Parliament, the easiest savings will have already been made. In the SMF’s pre-Budget publication, One More Time, we argue that Government will need to take more time in trying to identify the next tranche of savings. Most likely, big reforms will be needed that look ahead to the longer-term challenge of an ageing population, as pointed out in the OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Review. Giving departments breathing room to do this will ensure that big reforms are not rushed through at a higher price later on.

We will need to wait until the Autumn Spending Review to find out how different departments are set to share the cuts. However, an important principle that must run through the entire Spending Review programme is the need for investment in long-term growth to deliver sustainable rising incomes. Here, there may be reasons to worry. Whilst there is to be a levy on firms is to raise additional sums to fund apprenticeships, gross investment spending has been marked down compared to the March Budget. The roads investment fund paid for by Vehicle Excise Duty will only kick in at the end of the Parliament. The new fiscal rule targeting overall borrowing including investment also increases the vulnerability of capital spending.

Given the UK’s record on productivity, now is not the time to slow down on capital investment. George Osborne has offered some reprieve on austerity. Let’s hope it gets used wisely.

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

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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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