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Theresa May has secured a strong position in the Commons, but it comes with a price tag

The Prime Minister's majority is larger than it looks. But it comes with a hefty bill. 

And we’re out! The House of Commons voted to trigger Article 50 last night by 494 to 122. 52 Labour MPs joined the SNP, the SDLP, the Liberal Democrats and Caroline Lucas in voting against triggering, including Clive Lewis, who quit the shadow cabinet in order to do so.

The scale of the majority – and the strength of the government’s majority in resisting every amendment put to the bill – makes it difficult for the House of Lords to put up much fight. But watch out for what they do on the rights of EU citizens. Harriet Harman’s amendment guaranteeing the rights of people already living in the United Kingdom was defeated in the Commons, but is supported by 80 per cent of the British public according to polling by British Future.

When the Lords goes head-to-head with the elected chamber, they tend to pick battles where they know they have the public behind them.

Back to the elected chamber: the large and stable majority for the government’s original bill attests to the benefits of Theresa May’s long strategy of wooing the DUP. Getting that party onside has been a major priority for May since she got the keys to Downing Street, hence their invitation to Conservative party conference and May’s silence on the ongoing RHI scandal at Stormont. That’s the difference between a fragile Tory majority of 16 to a healthy one of 32. Time and again, Labour’s amendments foundered on the rock of that alliance.

But that deal comes with one hell of a pricetag attached. One of the amendments defeated yesterday was the requirement that the principles lay down in the Good Friday Agreement be respected. The idea that the Westminster government is an honest broker between the two sides at Stormont, already pretty fragile, may have gone down with it.

Much of the focus today is on Labour and their difficulties reconciling their electoral coalition to Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s cause hasn’t been helped by an ill-judged tweet suggesting the “fight starts now”, when, by most standards, the fight was either on 23 June 2016 or last night, and was lost, either 52 per cent to 48 per cent or by 494 to 122. Lewis has traded his seat in the shadow cabinet for the affections of the party’s activists, and, more importantly, has blunted a Liberal Democrat revival in his own seat of Norwich South.  

There are many difficulties for anyone predicting the end of Jeremy Corbyn; not least that the 52 rebels are effectively a scale model of the PLP in all its ideological hues. That is not the basis for a successful leadership bid by anyone.

The reality is that the settled will of much of the PLP is that they had to vote for Article 50. Had the whip gone the other way, there would have been a considerably larger rebellion. In any case, what really matters – not just for yesterday but for our Brexit course in particular and the Northern Irish situation in general – is the de facto Conservative-DUP coalition in the House.

And that’s going to have far bigger consequences than any number of tweets by the Labour leader.

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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