Nowhere to run

James Medhurst points out that the purpose of sport is not to create a level playing field but rathe

The South African runner Oscar Pistorius has been banned from competing in the Beijing Olympics this summer. The reason given is that the ‘blades’ used by the double-amputee in place of his lower legs will give him an unfair advantage over the other athletes. This seems to be a sensible decision to me but not to Pistorius, who intends to challenge it at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. Several other commentators such as the makers of a sympathetic documentary broadcast on Channel Five earlier in the month, seem to agree with Pistorius.

I am not qualified to talk about the science behind the decision (although nor are many of the other people who have spoken about it), however even if there is any doubt whether he does have an advantage, to use that as the basis to challenge the reasoning of the International Association of Athletics Federations completely misses the point. The purpose of sport is not to create a level playing field, as this would simply undermine the meaning of competition, but rather to compare like with like. Even if horses and greyhounds ran at comparable speeds, they would not be placed in the same race. I must tread carefully here because Paralympians and Olympians are, of course, members of the same species but there are still major physiological differences. Similarly, cyclists do not race against marathon runners nor rowers against yachtsmen.

To those raised on the civil rights movement and the South African boycott, the previous paragraph may seem to be a rather odd rejection of integration in favour of segregation. However, disability is not like race. In most areas of life, from education to medical care and from employment to leisure, integration is a desirable goal but it will not be achieved by treating disabled people as though we are the same as everybody else because we are not. Simply to throw a double leg amputee into a building without any lifts and tell him that he is treated equally because he can buy a trendy new prosthesis to help him to climb stairs will not be effective. The solution is to change the building and not to change him.

Rather than thinking about race, a better comparison is with sex. It used to be thought by feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir that women could only be equal by becoming like men and that women who wanted to have children should abandon childbearing in favour of their work goals. Fortunately, we have moved on and even the Conservative Party now recognises that family-friendly policies are the way to create genuine equality without a need for women to compromise their womanhood. I should state here, for the record, that I am not saying that we are anywhere near to achieving equality – I live in the real world after all – simply that we at least have some idea of what it would look like. Similarly, we feel that we have progressed from the Ancient Greeks by allowing women to take part in the Olympics, but we still do not consider it meaningful for them to compete against men.

The tragedy of Oscar Pistorius is that he would prefer to be fiftieth in the world and seen as the same as everyone else rather than being the best in the world and seen as different. The irony is that his blades may also be banned from the Paralympics because his rivals cannot afford them but he apparently refuses to switch to standard blades in order to be allowed to compete. His firm rejection of disability sport may prematurely end his career.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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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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