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Why Northern Ireland is on the brink of a snap election - and why it matters

A second election just months after the last is on the cards - but it is unlikely to solve anything. 

The story that matters more than any other? The resignation of Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness.

As the structure of devolved rule mandates power-sharing and “parity of esteem” between parties, McGuinness’ resignation forces the resignation of Arlene Foster as first minister and means that, unless Sinn Féin backtracks and appoints a replacement as deputy first minister in seven days, there will be fresh elections to Stormont.

The heart of the matter? The row over the Renewable Heat Incentive, the so-called “cash for ash” scandal. Under the scheme, farmers and other businesses were paid to use renewable energy, but there was no upper limit placed on the scheme, nor was there a requirement that the renewable heat incentive cover existing uses of energy. That meant that businesses were incentivised to use more heat, with one business allegedly installing boilers in a storage facility in order to collect more money for heating it, and some farmers installing heaters in sheds in order to cash in.

The pricetag of all this? Though the scheme has now been brought to an end, the ongoing liabilities of RHI mean that the devolved assembly will be paying out money for 20 years, with the final bill running to more than £1bn.

The blow to Northern Ireland’s finances will be even more acute as the country is set to lose out on funding from the EU, to which the region is a net beneficiary.

But what has elevated the row politically is that Arlene Foster, the first minister, was minister for the department of enterprise when the scheme was approved. McGuinness says that her position is not “credible or tenable” and has called for fresh elections to decide the matter.  

The difficulty is that an election is unlikely to settle anything. Stormont’s electoral system mandates power-sharing: the first-placed party chooses the first minister, the second the deputy, with posts allocated by the D’Hondt system (for a more detailed explanation of how D’Hondt works, click here). Though the third and fourth-placed parties can opt not to take their places on the executive, if either the first or second-placed parties do so, the executive can’t function, and direct rule from Westminster will be restored.

Voters in Northern Ireland elected a new assembly only last May, but there is the prospect that a snap election could, at least, change who is first minister.

When Peter Robinson, Foster’s predecessor, was implicated in the Irisgate scandal, he stood down temporarily as first minister, awaiting the results of an inquiry which went on to exonerate him fully. Still, standing down was not enough to prevent him losing his Westminster seat of Belfast East with a massive and unexpected swing to the Alliance, a non-sectarian party.

Although there is no implication that Foster behaved in a corrupt manner or has profited from the cash for ash affair, her handling of the row has been maladroit to put it mildly. She has accused her critics of misogyny, an ill-judged response to a scheme that will be a drag on the public purse in Northern Ireland for years to come.  

It feels likely that her party will pay at least a small price at the ballot box, potentially surrendering first place. That would mean Sinn Féin would hold the position of first minister for the first time, though that post and the deputy job are technically of equal weight. But even so, the system of mandatory coalition means that Foster and the DUP will be back in power after the next election regardless. Worse still, an election campaign may further enflame tensions between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

There are far-reaching consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom, too. Stable government in Northern Ireland and the peace process could both be put under threat. And that Brexit – opposed by 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters – runs the risk of putting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic adds to the pressure on the peace process and on the Brexit negotiations generally.

It’s a big test, too, for James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Theresa May has always known that Brexit and a swathe of other issues all had the potential to erupt in Northern Ireland which is why she appointed Brokenshire, who she trusts and rates highly, to the post. I’m told that she believes that Brokenshire’s abilities could take him all the way to the top. We may learn very soon whether that trust is justified.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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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