Laurie Penny: Why I'm marching today for anti-austerity

Like thousands of others, I'll be demonstrating in London because we need to fight for our principles.

The backlash is on. With counter-propaganda pouring in about today's demonstration, I''m crouched on the bed cramming water bottles, wet wipes and a spare hoodie into my backpack, testing my riot boots, getting ready to march.

From senior police officers to stuffed-shirt commentators to single mothers on the protest coach from Aberdeen to the anarchists currently putting the finishing touches to their trojan horse in Kennington, pretty much everyone seems to be convinced there's going to be an epic kick-off. There is trepidation and excitement on both sides. Many tens of thousands of protesters and police would rather we all went on a nice civilised saunter to Hyde Park to hear some speeches, but many others are getting their armour ready, digging out their face masks, shining up their riot shields for a rumble in London.

Whatever happens, the eyes of the world will be on this city today. The ancient streets are going to shake with the stoppered rage of the public, as they have done so many times before. Seven hundred years ago, Wat Tyler led thousands in a march against feudalism and entitlement, against wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a few rich families who owned everything and were answerable to noone. Seven hundred years later, we're still marching, because it's still happening.

The business elites have been allowed to vampirise the future, and instead of being made to pay for their mistakes, they brazenly demand more tribute. Our barely-elected representatives cheerfully force us into lines to pay the tithe, breaking the heads of children in parliament square if they refuse to comply. As we get ready to march, a government with little mandate is turning our country into a smooth-running cartel to serve the petulant demands of global finance. In his budget speech, George Osborne declared that the world should take note of the fact that "Britain is open for business". Having previously announced the decimation of welfare, education, culture, healthcare, public services and the arts, the City of London-financed Conservative party has ensured that Britain is open for little else, and is swinging shut in the faces of the unprofitable.

Present political expediency offers no way out, and a thousand reasons to march. This week, many people have told me their reasons. Elderly, disabled and mentally ill people and carers who cannot do without the welfare benefits that the government is about to sell off to finance a cut to corporation tax. School pupils who want to be able to afford university without taking on a lifetime's worth of debt; students at glasgow and UCL universities who have been assaulted by police and victimised by management for daring to speak out against that encroaching debt, and for standing in solidarity with striking staff and lecturers. Career anarchists and concerned liberals on their first protest in three decades. Trades unionists unfurling the banners and getting ready to demand the sort of basic human dignity that became unfashionable in the mid-1980s. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, people already too sick or exhausted or impoverished to come to the protests in person, and the strangers who offered to show solidarity by marching in their stead. A man with terminal cancer and five weeks to live, whose incapacity benefits had been delayed by the latest welfare reforms. A woman set to lose her NHS job who can no longer afford childcare.

So many reasons, so many voices, so much anger that one simple political alternative could never be broad enough to satisfy them all. So many voices, and if I had twenty years I could sit and write down every one and make them loud enough for all London to hear. At times like this, words on a screen aren't enough. At times like this, we have to go to the streets.

There will be enough time for stories today; stories of indignation and suffering and small triumphs bitten back from the jaws of spiteful austerity. But right now I'm going to do something I do very seldom. I'm going to tell you why I'm marching.

I'm marching because I'm afraid. I'm afraid that everything precious about modernity might be destroyed by a cabal of financiers and aristocrats who own everything and answer to noone. I'm afraid that the civil humanity of welfare, healthcare, public education, art, science and protection for minorities and the dispossessed that so many hundreds of people fought and died for over three long centuries of struggle, I'm afraid that that might all be taken away because some millionaires have decided they're not being paid enough.

I'm afraid that the governments of Europe and America and the Middle East will continue to listen to those millionaires and only to those millionaires whilst their people cry out for relief. I'm afraid that they'll carry on taking the best ideals of human decency and twisting them into tortured pastiches of principle. I'm afraid that in thirty years the word "freedom" will mean only only military imperialism, the word "democracy" only the bloody enforcement of western corporate hegemony, the word "liberty" only the blithe self-interest of the few, the word "fairness" only the moral imposition of austerity by governments soaked in oil-money, in blood-money, in money summarily appropriated from struggling taxpayers to fund the debts of the rich.

I'm afraid that if we don't turn and fight for those principles, they will cease to exist, at least in the way we understand them.

This is not about party politics. I care not one jot about whether the current Conservative-led administration is openly continuing New Labour's project of decimating welfare, privatising education, holding down wages and sucking the shrivelled morals of the City. I'm just afraid that the bastards are going to get away with it. I'm marching today with hundreds of thousands of others because I don't want to be afraid anymore. This is just the beginning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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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