So four Google executives are paying themselves $15m in bonuses, despite the company's bad behaviour...

But we should all calm down. This isn't as bad as it seems.

Arguably, the two business metrics that capture most public attention in the post-2008 media climate are the value of fines levied for bad behaviour, and the bonuses paid to top executives.

The cathartic element in seeing a big company charged for wrongdoing, and the commensurate outrage of sums on a similar scale being offered to individuals as a reward for business conducted during the same period, are always bound to resonate in a climate where people feel they have been impoverished by greed on an epic scale.

So how has the world reacted to fine and bonus figures released by Google, as the web giant reported $15 million in bonuses paid to four executives, and $7m in fines to 38 US states over invasion of privacy through Google Street View?

Understandably, commentators have been quick to jump on the latter. A $7m fine is hilariously small for a company with a market cap of $274bn and latest annual profits of $2.89bn: a typo in the first draft of this article had the fine set at $7, which it might as well have been, for all the difference it makes.

The fine is far more interesting in terms of reputation than financial impact, especially when associated clauses are considered. As well as binning the contested Street View data, Google has been required to run a ten year employee training program on privacy, and launch a public service advertising campaign on securing wireless networks.

If Microsoft had been considering canning its “Scroogled” smear campaign on Google’s privacy attitudes, as some speculated earlier this month, it is likely to have reconsidered in light of the Street View fines.

But even though Google’s bonuses more than double what it has been fined, I am yet to find any censure online for the $15m payout offered to bosses. After all, even though the smallest bonus – chief business officer Nikesh Arora’s $2.8m – is dream money for most of us disgruntled mortals, it hardly seems berserk against the backdrop of such gargantuan revenues and profits.

This is certainly not news when compared with RBS, a company with a market cap of $33bn compared to Google’s $274, handing over more than $600m in payouts to executives at the same time as being fined $400m over the LIBOR scandal - in itself arguably a drop in the ocean.

If anything, the fact that Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are not to receive bonuses at all seems positively saintly, and goes some way to negating any reputational damage over the Street View incident.

The reason for this, however, is that both men are already worth over $20bn, making even RBS executives look like the rest of us by comparison.  With figures like that floating around, I’m surprised anyone reported on Google’s bonus payments and snooping fines at all.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for 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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