The exploitation of Mongolia

More from the Green Party conference in Liverpool

Saturday at conference in Liverpool is a relative day off for me, at least compared with yesterday.

In a way I went back to my roots today (I used to be national campaigns co-ordinator before being Principal Speaker), chairing two fringe meetings about issues-based campaigns.

The first was planning and brainstorming for how we can promote and grow the Census Alert campaign to stop the UK census in 2011 from being run by arms company Lockheed Martin.

Greens campaigning locally can make a real difference here, because local councils depend on the data from the census for their funding, and also have to work closely with the chosen contractor to help ensure compliance in the kind of ‘hard to reach groups’ we think will be most put off by giving the contract to Lockheed.

Because the campaign is cross party, even Green parties without councillors can help by getting councillors from other parties to object to this involvement. There were lots of other ideas at the meeting of course, but I won’t mention them here – out of studying-Lockheed-induced paranoia.

After that, I showed a film by the International Chair of the Mongolian Green Party, Purevsuren Shah, given to me when he visited London earlier this summer.

An accomplished journalist and broadcaster, he directed the film himself to draw attention to the huge problems being caused by rampant gold and copper mining across Mongolia.

With only half a translation of the Mongolian language dialogue, plus my notes from being talked through the film, I had to put together subtitles myself. They got a bit sparse and comical in places, but the presentation got across the gist of the problem, which is anything but amusing.

The problem is that Mongolia has some of the best and largest gold and copper deposits in the world and since 1997, with a massive acceleration since 2000, the government has been selling licences to mine these at a huge rate. The area of Mongolia covered by mining licences is now about 45%, and they are going for a relative song - $20 a hectare for a 30-year license is typical.

One ‘stock watch’ website I consulted just before conference said that Mongolia is literally a gold mine for investors because of, "the incredible ease and speed of securing exploration and mining licenses." There are literally hundreds of mining companies involved in this new gold rush, but most of the biggest offenders are based in Canada, Australia, South Africa and London.

Not all of these licenses have been exploited yet, but those that have are causing immense problems already – literally carving chunks out of Mongolia’s beautiful landscapes and leaving a legacy of pollution that will be there for years to come. More than 2,000 of the country’s small and medium sized rivers have disappeared, due to mining operations digging up their sources, and there is widespread soil and water pollution from the mercury and cyanide used in the mining and extraction process.

Only 20% of the land used for mining is rehabilitated afterwards, and the film is full of images of gorgeous hills and valleys being turned into dried up, uninhabitable rubble.

The environmental problems will become bigger and more irreversible if something isn’t done soon, so Perevsuren Shah is aiming to draw international attention to the issue in order to increase pressure on the irresponsible mining companies and the irresponsible government that is encouraging the destruction.

He also wants help to bring environmental scientists and investigators to Mongolia measure properly the pollution and damage caused so far. He is a soil scientist himself, and much of the research shown in the film is his own, but it’s too big a job for one team and they badly need more investment in their projects.

We talked about how the Greens in the UK can help and plan to make contact with other green groups to help get this onto the agenda here. One obvious task is to sort out a full translation of the film, so anyone out there with skills in both Mongolian and English, please get in touch.

Oh, and finally, there’s an awful lot of talk here about the upcoming referendum on whether to have an actual Leader and Deputy (or Co-Leaders) instead of the two Principal Speakers we now have as our main representatives. But the main debate on that is on Sunday, so I’ll save that for later.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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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