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Leader: Engage but beware

When it comes to Donald Trump, the UK government can't afford to be passive.

Donald Trump is governing as he promised he would. The US president was elected on the most reactionary platform of any recent candidate and has introduced his programme with ruthless speed. He has ended funding for international organisations that perform or provide information on abortions, restarted the construction of two oil pipelines (having once dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax), floated the revival of torture and ordered the building of a wall on the border with Mexico. Of all the president’s acts, the most egregious was his ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states entering the US.

Mr Trump’s immigration policy is immoral and reckless. The United States, like all developed countries, has a duty to shelter refugees. America has a proud history of welcoming the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Mr Trump’s stance is the antithesis of this enlightened vision. That he signed the order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day betrayed either his ignorance or his callousness.

Refugees already undergo the strictest background checks of anyone entering the US: admission typically takes between 18 and 24 months. Mr Trump contends that further limitations are required to shield his country from terrorism. Yet while banning people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, he has left unaffected those from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – countries that hosted the 11 September 2001 hijackers but where the president has business interests. Of the 800,000 refugees admitted since the attacks, just five have been found guilty of involvement in terrorism – none of it on American soil. Mr Trump’s decision to discriminate against Muslims is a propaganda gift to Islamic State. The terrorist group asserts that the US is the enemy of all believers, rather than merely jihadists. Mr Trump’s position risks validating this claim.

The United States is a country built by immigrants and has long thrived on their contributions. Mr Trump’s executive order is an act of economic, cultural and diplomatic self-harm. It is also almost certainly unconstitutional, violating the prohibition against religious discrimination. Yet the president’s decision to defy a judicial ruling on deportations shows his disregard for established norms.

The constitution was designed precisely to constrain autocrats such as Mr Trump. But though he entered office with the lowest approval rating of any president, the institutional restraints on him are limited. In addition to the White House, the Republicans control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority.

For these reasons, there is a heightened responsibility on allies of the US to challenge the president’s behaviour. Theresa May was criticised by many for her initial failure to condemn Mr Trump’s immigration ban. Yet the Prime Minister is in an invidious position. She has resolved that the UK must maintain working relations with the US (a stance seconded by Jeremy Corbyn) in the hope of influencing Mr Trump for good. The new reality of Brexit – an outcome that Mrs May opposed – places a further premium on such alliances.

However, confronted with Mr Trump – an unprecedented threat to the post-1945 liberal order – the UK cannot be passive. Although the US has granted dual nationals, such as the great Olympian Mo Farah, an exemption from the ban, Britain must continue to protest against the treatment of others. It cannot allow the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal to reduce its foreign policy to simple self-interest. The UK’s standing is not served by the country being seen as a “vassal state” (in the words of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron).

More than 1.6 million people have signed a petition against Mr Trump’s planned state visit to the UK. If he comes, the president should not be accorded the privilege of addressing MPs and peers at Westminster Hall (only eight people, including Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi, have had that honour).

The US president’s contempt for a rules-based international order risks inaugurating an era in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Britain must use every tool to bind Mr Trump to the established order. Yet, as the government does so, Mrs May should remember her own diplomatic advice and “engage but beware”. 

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage

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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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