The middle class should leave rioting to the professionals

Couldn't the riots have been influenced by, well, the riots?

Something else has been bugging me. About the riots. Or more specifically, our attempt to find rhyme or reason for them.

We seem to have left no sociological or psychological rock unturned. Poverty and social alienation. Poor parenting and educational support. Cuts to everything from EMA to police numbers. Oh, and the bankers. Mustn't forget those dastardly bankers.

But something's been missing. For a while, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then, in a flash of inspiration, it came to me.

Couldn't the riots have been influenced by, well, the riots?

We had some. We definitely had some. I distinctly remember. They started with Conservative Central Office getting smashed up, and a couple of police officers nearly being decapitated with a fire extinguisher. Then, if memory serves me right, half the West End got trashed. Not once, but twice. First by the students, then by a mob of anarchist fellow travellers trying to ride the coattails of the TUC rally.

Yet, for some reason we -- and by we, I'm using my traditional lazy short-hand for the left -- don't seem to have mentioned this. John Harris didn't mention it in last Thursday's Guardian, when he pointed the finger squarely at greedy MPs. John Pilger chose to overlook it when he blamed just about everyone but the rioters, here at the Statesman. No. The left has decided to scurry by, looking for more ideologically acceptable excuses. Sorry, causes.

Let's return to the group every right-minded person knows were the true instigators of this month's disorder. The bankers.

If you accept, as I do, that greed and an arrogant assumption of a right to material gain at any price were at a minimum a subliminal cause of the looting and mayhem. And you further accept the bankers, at least generically, are poster boys for that greed and arrogance, then I think the link between their excess and the excess on our streets is a legitimate one.

But if we believe the rioters were spurred on by the image of those in positions of wealth and influence flouting the rules to the detriment of society, surely we must extend that principle to people like Charlie Gilmour and his fellow undergraduates, who not only flouted the rules but physically indulged in rioting themselves. If the sight of a millionaire in red braces pushing a button in a City dealing room is supposed to incite a young inner city teenager to put a brick through a shop window, what effect is that sight of a millionaire in a Keffiyeh putting a brick through a window themselves supposed to have? To judge from the silence of the liberal left, none.

Let's cast the net a bit wider. What about the direct action movements, like UK Uncut? When middle class youngsters lawlessly occupy shops, and are feted for their "brilliant protests" that can "unite us all", we conveniently assume our inner city youth will instinctively know where to draw the line. And for some reason we also assume that whilst a banker engaged in legal activity at his desk can be the spur for a looter, a protestor illegally entering Fortnum's and spraying graffiti on the wall cannot.

This blame game can be fun. Especially when we get to write our own rules, and pretend we're the only side that's playing.

Just ask Jonnie Marbles. Self-styled crusader for truth, justice and the pie-pushers' way. Jonnie, if you recall, decided the rule of law wasn't for him. He had grievances, and a sense of injustice. He needed to fight the power; to take it to the man. So he took it the man, and assaulted an 80 year-old pensioner. He didn't care about the police. He didn't care that his actions would be broadcast on live public television. No balaclava for Jonnie. Jonnie laughs in the face of authority. Taunts it. Flans it. And what's more, he's got himself some much needed street cred. Just read this excerpt from his 'prison blog':

We both break into grins and the familiar dance of how, why and handshakes plays out. I give him the short answer first, then the long one. Five minutes later Beebop, my newest lag friend, is getting me to sign his copy of The Sun.

Eat your heart out, Oscar Wilde.

Is Jonnie Marbles directly to blame for the riots? Of course not. No more than Charlie Gilmour, or Edward Woollard.

But if we seek to go beyond direct to subliminal causes -- apparently all the rage -- then why are they no more or less to blame than Fred the Shred? Because our search for answers is not a search for answers at all. It is a desperate scramble to clean up the house before our parents get home.

Before 6 August, disorder in our streets was fashionable. It was raw and exciting. Empowering.

So long as it remained the preserve of the middle class. The students. The anarchists. The gentleman insurgents.

Then the big boys turned up. Bad boys. Boys who aren't content to sit listening to Asian Dub Foundation while huddled around burning copies of the Socialist Worker, sharing solidarity with the Arab Spring.

Middle class Britain has been having fun with its own unique brand of direct action. But this month the fun stopped. Ed Miliband is right. We do need to look at "irresponsibility" in all its forms.

And perhaps from now on the rioting should be left to the professionals.

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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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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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