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PMQs review: Theresa May tries to avoid the NHS

As Jeremy Corbyn warned that she was in "denial" over the "crisis", the PM sought to shift attention to the economy. 

With every PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn appears less and less of a break with the past. “Our NHS is in crisis but the Prime Minister is in denial,” he declared today, a line used by Labour leaders down the ages. After divisions over immigration and maximum wage laws, Corbyn focused solely on the issue of health (as many MPs have wanted him to).

Though Labour is often accused of crying wolf over the NHS, it isn’t only the opposition that is alarmed. In a much-quoted description, the Red Cross has warned of a “humanitarian crisis”. Theresa May rejected this as “irresponsible and overblown” but she found it harder to dismiss the figure cited by Corbyn: 1.8m people waited longer than four hours in A&E departments last year.

When May insisted that more people were being treated, Corbyn moved from the macro to the micro. He cited the case of an NHS worker’s 22-month old nephew who was treated on two plastic chairs held together by a blanket. May conceded that there had been a “small number of incidents” where “unacceptable practices” have taken place. “Small?” cried Labour MPs (there were 18,000 trolley waits of more than four hours last week).

May soon gave the impression of someone who wanted to change the subject. "We can only fund social care and NHS if we have a strong economy,” she declared (a line straight from David Cameron’s 2015 script). Brexit gives Labour the chance to argue that the Tories have threatened that aim but that is a blow the opposition has yet to land.

Both leaders appeared happier playing at home (Corbyn on the NHS, May on the economy) than away. Corbyn’s soundbites, however, have notably sharpened: “Earlier this week, the Prime Minister said she wanted to create a ‘shared society’. Well, we’ve certainly got that. More people sharing hospital corridors on trolleys. More people sharing waiting areas in A&E departments. More people sharing in anxiety created by this government.”

He demanded that May cancel the planned corporation tax cuts and “spend the money where it’s needed, on people in desperate need in social care or in our hospitals.” In response, the PM derided Corbyn’s “relaunch”.

"Yesterday he proved that he is not only incompetent but he would destroy our economy and that would devastate our NHS."

Once again, May used the health of the economy as a metric for the health of the NHS. But though the former has so far avoided recession, the latter is faring less well. As much as the PM may wish otherwise, this will not be the last chance that Corbyn gets to warn of “a crisis”.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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