Are Lib Dems doing enough to distance themselves from the Bedroom Tax?

The party's conference voted overwhelmingly that it was the wrong thing to do, but does that get across to the average voter?

I was spending a pleasant evening last week in front of the box, shouting via the medium of Twitter at the Tories in general (and Anna Soubry in particular), when a Labour supporting follower engaged in a spot of good natured leg pulling by telling me Ms Soubry was "my Minister". When I demurred, he added . . .

“Do you agree with the present coalition? If so, she IS your minister. If not, call on your party to dissolve . . .”

I’m presuming he meant to add "the coalition" (well I’m choosing to interpret it like that – it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to) and it's been preying on my mind all week, given the context of Bedroom Tax vote which took place on Tuesday.

Now, of course using an Opposition Day motion to make the junior party in the coalition feel uncomfortable is a trick used by Labour before, to little effect - but this time was different. It's one thing trying to play games around the Mansion Tax - which no matter how clever your procedural chicanery may be, you’re never going to persuade anyone that it isn’t a Lib Dem policy. It’s quite another thing to turn the focus onto the Bedroom Tax (sorry HQ, I meant "spare room subsidy") - because the party, let alone the country, doesn’t seem too sure if is "ours" or not.

It’s a Tory policy – well actually it’s a Labour policy extended by the Tories but let's not quibble - that our MPs supported in the Commons. Then Lib Dem conference decreed overwhelmingly that it was the wrong thing to do – almost the sole defeat for the leadership in Glasgow. This seemed to engender a change of heart in Nick Clegg – who announced an investigation into the implementation of the tax. Then, when invited to vote on it again this week, two Lib Dem MPs voted with Labour – including the party president. Four more Lib Dem MPs put down their own early day motion condemning the Bedroom Tax. And 22 members of the Westminster party abstained on the motion – including more than half the cabinet, one of whom was the Deputy Prime Minister. Sure they were probably paired. But if they cared that much. . .

On the other hand, more than half the Parliamentary party in the Commons merrily marched into the government lobby with the Tories.

Together with at least 23 of our MPs and most of conference, I’d like to think the Bedroom Tax, as it currently stands, isn’t "our" policy . . .but I’m not sure we’re doing nearly enough to turn our face away.  And if our MP and activists don’t know  - what hope for the average voter?

 

Nick Clegg seemed to have a change of heart after the conference vote. Photo: Getty

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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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