Evil twin?

Poor Gordon - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins. What happens if

Something of an eventful fortnight behind me. The weekend before last I had to pick up the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. This involved flying to Salzburg – cue much head twitching and feeble attempts at self-hypnosis in various bits of Gatwick. Eventually my imagination simply became so exhausted by picturing smiley things and projection screens and giving air gunners encouraging hugs that it could no longer picture my mangled remains dangling from a tree, ready to traumatise a passing rescue worker. At least not clearly enough to prevent me from boarding the plane and then carrying out every single obsessive-compulsive safety ritual I have – along with a few I invented as we bounced along. I’m sure I was a joy to all observers – tapping, nodding, shuddering and humming away like a shouldn’t-ever-be-out-patient.

Salzburg itself is lovely – delightful graveyard. The prize business involved wearing evening dress at most times of day, staring at canapés and being regularly assailed by classical music. All of which was so cultured, civilised and frankly unbelievable that it became pleasant, rather than nerve-wracking. The Austrian Minister for Culture is charming and actually cares about culture and the Austrian Prime Minister gave me cake – while I tried to assure him my own Prime Minister would have taken my cake and told me it would be given to the destitute and cake-needy before sneaking it into the cake trough of a cake-spattered man in a mink cake-eating suit. Poor Gordon, though - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins, after all. What happens if we get the evil twin? I’ve watched more than enough Hammer horror films to know this is surely a risk.

Of course, the day after landing back from Salzburg (and being almost delighted enough by my continued existence to stay in the Ibis Euston without feeling nauseous – honestly, a sign in the foyer says it’s all about European values and “the breath of France” – France has serious internal problems if its breath smells of Ibis, that’s all I can say.. sorry that’s far too long a parenthesis and this is simply adding to it) I had to jump into my first preview performance for the Fringe.

And I’ve been running the show ever since – which is what I now choose to call a lovely holiday. I work one hour a day (unless I’m doing some other bit of funny stuff, which might bring that up to a whole hour and a half) and potter for the rest of the time, grinning like a Muppet. Thus far the ladies and gentlemen have been splendid, the venue has been only just hot enough to melt bronze and nothing apocalyptic has happened with any wiring.

I have now passed into that very special state of tiredness that only the Fringe produces – the sort where you can endlessly perform magic tricks on yourself. For example, approximately eight times a day I open my travel wallet with its central panel flipped left instead of right and then wonder pathetically where all my money and cards have gone. My show this year involves a mug of tea which I managed to put in my bag yesterday when I left The Stand. I then opened said bag on the train going home, noticed the tea – still, amazingly, in the mug – lifted it out of my bag and drank it. Which allowed fellow passengers to assume that a) I am unhinged b) I am a bad, beverage-related mime c) I am an unhinged and bad children’s entertainer. Things can only get odder and I can hardly wait.

You can see AL Kennedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

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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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