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Is it crass to compare the protests in London, Cairo and Wisconsin?

The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance.

I'm standing in Euston Road with 150 anti-cuts protesters, who have occupied the thoroughfare after being wrestled out of Camden Council's budget meeting by a solid wall of police. "London, Cairo, Wisconsin!" yell the demonstrators. "We will fight, we will win!"

As two rows of cops contain the demonstration, an elderly lady in a woolly hat hands me a pamphlet about a local unemployed workers' caucus and invites me to pet her Yorkshire terrier. It's not exactly Tahrir Square -- but is the comparison with the Middle East uprisings really so crass?

For anyone who's seen pictures of heads split open by sniper bullets in Tripoli, claiming a common cause can't help but feel insensitive. The brave people of Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, after all, are fighting the sort of police states that skip the CS spray and stop-and-search forms and go straight to the torture and British-made machine guns.

Suddenly, it seems rather a luxury to be fighting a right-wing government that merely wishes to impose brutal cuts for which it has no mandate. Clegg and Cameron may be stabbing us in the back, but they're not yet shooting us in the head.

The desperate workers and welfare claimants occupying their local councils, however, refuse to be told that their fight is of no importance simply because more violent standoffs are taking place overseas.

"What we're fighting here is very, very different from what they're fighting in the Middle East," says Jess, a 20-year-old activist. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight."

Telling British protesters to stop whingeing because the fight for self-determination is more perilous in the Middle East is a little like telling people not to build soup kitchens in Britain because there are starving children in Africa.

There is nothing exotic, however, about inequality. It was youth unemployment, graduate unrest and soaring food prices that catalysed the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia; meanwhile, in Britain, where Muammar Gaddafi was a "close personal friend" of successive PMs, youth unemployment is almost as high as in Egypt. The demographic driving the resistance, moreover, is growing in every major world city: unemployed graduates with no future and the tools to build networks.

The difference between Tahrir Square and Parliament Square is one of scale, but not of substance. Across the world, ordinary people are being denied a voice, shut out of work and education, having their dignity trashed. While armchair liberals express sympathy with protesters in the Middle East, workers and students in Britain have begun to express something far more powerful: solidarity.

Solidarity, the watchword of this movement, hashtagged and chanted across the world, is not about pretending that there's no difference between a flashmob in London and a riot in Tripoli.

Solidarity is the shared conviction that while the disposessed lead vastly different lives across the world, those lives may yet lead them to the same place of greater freedom. It's not just a word; it's a weapon.

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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