Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. When prisoners mean profit, the numbers don't go down (Guardian)

Cracking down on Sky TV for inmates is easy, writes Zoe Williams. Solving the paradox of a privatised prison service is going to be a lot harder.

2. Voters should learn the lesson of history and back a Tory (Daily Telegraph)

Stealing votes from the Tories guarantees the election of a pro-European Labour Party in thrall to the unions, says Peter Oborne.

3. Bangladesh's tragedies must stop (Financial Times)

Western companies should not withdraw from the country but work to raise standards, writes John Gapper.

4. MMR is the Hillsborough of my profession (Times)

In a crime worse than phone hacking, journalists of all stripes put sensationalism before science and misled the public, writes David Aaronovitch.

5. Whatever you think of fracking, this isn't the way forward (Guardian)

An energy policy based on buying off hostility to fracking by building badminton courts won't keep our lights on, says Michael Hanlon.

6. Which side is Cameron's new team on? (Daily Telegraph)

His backbench advisers may find their loyalties divided between No 10 and the Commons, writes Sue Cameron.

7. Austerity is not the only answer to debt (Financial Times)

Keynes was not dismissive of debt, write Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. Why should we be?

8. Dave won't back down on aid. But wily ministers are finding ways to get him out of the mire (Daily Mail)

Sinuous ministers such as Philip Hammond are searching for legitimate ways to raid the aid budget, writes Stephen Glover.

9. Like the unions before it, the press has shown us who really governs Britain (Guardian)

Cameron has failed a generation by allowing Leveson to go under, says Martin Kettle. Media barons have bent parliament to their will.

10. This pensioner isn’t giving his benefits back (Independent)

I cannot send off cheques to the very people, ministers and civil servants alike, who are so bad at their jobs that we have had to invent a word to describe their failings, says Andreas Whittam Smith.

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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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