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Donald Trump has done the right thing in Syria for the wrong reasons

Unauthorised and inconsistent intervention bodes ill for Trump's presidency. 

 When I was working for Ben Brogan at the Telegraph, he always used to tell me of the importance of "stress-testing the narrative".

Donald Trump's decision to authorise missile strikes on Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria - the first direct intervention by the United States in the Syrian war - upends many of our assumptions about America's new president, but confirms others.

Yes, the investigation into whether the Kremlin may have co-ordinated with the Trump campaign remains open, and Trump may well owe his presidency to Russian interference. But it's hard now to claim that the Trump administration is a puppet of Vladimir Putin, particularly as Rex Tillerson has separately announced that it is now the American government's objective to seek "regime change" in Syria.

As far as the need for a response to Assad's use of sarin gas goes, it's worth revisiting Rory Stewart's 2013 blog. His case for the importance of a response (that the international prohibition on the use of chemical warfare should remain in place) remains convincing while his three conditions that response must satisfy (not to make the conditions for the civilian population worse, to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, and to send a clear message that the use of weapons will not be tolerated elsewhere) continue to be essential. And as Yvette Cooper noted in her excellent 2015 speech, there can be no defeat of the self-styled Islamic State that doesn't involve the permanent removal of the Assad regime as well.

(It's worth noting too that the attack has been welcomed by the bulk of Syrian activists.)

There's a "but" coming though, and it's a big one. All of that has be weighed against the parts of the Trump narrative that have been reinforced, and terrifyingly so, by last night's bombing. The first is that Trump has acted without Congressional or international authorisation, part of the pattern noted in this week's Spectator: that Trump's approach is war and more war, and largely without legislative oversight.

The second is what it confirms about the volatility and unreliability of Trump. The case against "narrowing the circle of what is prohibited" as Stewart put it remains unchanged since 2013 when Trump angrily campaigned against bombing. The case against Assad as part of the solution in Syria remains unchanged since last year's presidential race, when Trump ran on a platform of doing a deal with Assad. When the facts change, I change my mind: but the facts haven't changed. What has changed is that Trump saw something he didn't like on TV. What will he see next week?

That Trump has acted against the use of chemical weapons and in accordance with the wishes the bulk of Syrian activist groups should be welcomed. That he has done so without authorisation, apparently off the back of a TV report is worrying. 

As I wrote earlier this week, the absence of direct intervention in Syria has been a disaster. That doesn't mean that the unauthorised and inconsistent intervention of a volatile president will be any more successful.

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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